Hope College, a liberal arts college in Holland, Michigan, has used a Teagle grant in thoughtful ways to improve student engagement and learning. They have been exceptionally open about the information they have gleaned about student learning on their campus. This has helped focus faculty attention on areas where improvement can be made. I was eager to see their work in person and to join in a faculty retreat held at the College on February 10, 2009. Here's a version of the remarks I made at that time.
Over the past six years, I have had an amazing privilege. Like a disoriented migratory bird, I found a little perch at a window in Rockefeller Center. From there, I have been able to look broadly at American higher education, and at liberal education in particular. My time clinging to this perch has coincided with some major changes, nationwide, in our understanding of how best to advance student learning. Sometimes, I think I can feel the bedrock shifting as these changes take place. That could be a frightening experience, but I have found it exhilarating. A new configuration is emerging in American higher education and with it the possibility of new levels of achievement. I am noticing three shifts that I believe are reshaping liberal education. The first is a movement away from the assumption that exposure to certain content will automatically result in a liberal education. The passing of this assumption has been widely noted and rarely mourned. But part of the story has been less fully reported. In place of this assumption has come more explicit identification of the cognitive and personal goals. The second shift I notice is the transfer of the question, "How do we know?" from scholarly work to the understanding of student learning. The third is the increase in knowledge about how students learn. Let me comment about each of these three in turn.
First, the movement toward explicit goals. Over the past few decades, many colleges and universities have developed clear statements about the goals they want their students to attain during their undergraduate years. Some of these are cognitive outcomes, such as improved written and oral communication, or critical thinking, while others are more personal, like team work and social responsibility. Back in the early 1990s, you at Hope College developed your statement of "habits and skills." You were ahead of the curve. You didn't just assume that reading some good books and passing some general education courses would achieve a true liberal education. You knew that it would help your students if you were explicit about your expectations.More recently, the Association of American Colleges and Universities has been eloquent in advocating a similar approach. Its list of "Essential Learning Outcomes" includes:
Knowledge of human cultures and of the physical and natural world;
Intellectual and practical skills including critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy , teamwork and problem solving;
Personal and social responsibility including civic engagement, ethical reasoning, and a foundation for life-long learning;
Integrative learning including synthesis and advanced accomplishment across generalized and specialized studies.
This is a fresh way to approach liberal education, through a robust and demanding set of objectives. Like all such objectives, this list has important implications at four different levels.
First, the national level. Liberal education is not well understood in the country that has been its cradle and nurturer. It is a distinctively American phenomenon, but many in the United States confuse it with a few broad "general education" courses, or with political liberalism, or something "artsy craftsy," like basket weaving. But if you ask business and opinion leaders what they believe today's students need, their answers often closely coincide with the list of "Essential Learning Outcomes" which many colleges and universities have now adopted. To be sure, higher education has not done a very good job of communicating its commitment to these important and lasting educational goals. Look at a typical transcript and you will see a list of grades in individual courses, not any indication of how well the student has progressed toward the institution's overall goals. If you look at the institution's website, you may have to spend a long time before you discover what those goals are. If you listen in on orientation sessions for students or new faculty, you may not get the message that the institution has clear goals and that course work and major requirements are really designed to help students achieve them. And you would think nothing has changed.
We have a long way to go in communicating what it is we are trying to do. But the most pressing question in my view is, "How close are our students coming toward those goals?" We can argue about that until the cows come home, but everyone, I believe, would agree that there is plenty of room for improvement. And it is on such improvement, on demonstrable progress toward robust educational goals, that the social contract between higher education and American society depends. It is no longer enough to point to all the good things that are happening on American campuses. The challenge now is to demonstrate results. That will require, I believe, changes at three other levels.
Let us turn, then, to the second level at which this movement toward explicit goals plays out: the institutional or curricular level. Once an institution sets really robust cognitive and personal goals for its students, it has to ask whether its curriculum is really aligned with those goals. That is not primarily a question about the content of the curriculum, on which so much effort has been poured—and often wasted. Rather it is about the way students are taught, and how they are encouraged and helped to learn.
Later in this talk, I will argue that we now know what it takes to help students achieve higher levels of engagement, learning, and satisfaction in their college educations. We know it; we know it both at a macro and at a micro level, but we don't do it nearly often enough.
Right now, though let me drill down one level more, to that of the departmental major. Older views of liberal education drew a sharp line between disciplinary concentration in the last two years of college and "general education" in the first and second years. Broad general education courses still have an important role to play, I believe, but they cannot be expected to realize all the goals of the robust liberal education we have in view. That requires a synergy between the departmental major and other parts of the college experience. The two have to nurture one another.
That was the idea behind a Request for Proposals which the Teagle Foundation extended to various disciplinary organizations two and a half years ago. We asked major national organizations if they wanted to explore the relationship between liberal education goals and the undergraduate major, and prepare a White Paper on that subject. The response was powerful and positive. Five such documents have now been completed and are available on our website. They are in the fields of economics, English and foreign languages, history, biochemistry and molecular biology, and religion. I recommend them to you. In each case, you will find that leaders of the scholarly discipline have accepted the idea of liberal education as the achievement of ambitious and explicit educational goals. Often they suggest that departments should be explicit about the goals they set for their students. They are envisioning that synergy between majoring in a field and achieving a liberal education.
That would not have happened, I believe, three or four years ago. Now it is becoming the social norm.
Let's turn then to the fourth level, that of the individual course. As courses become more closely aligned with the educational goals of an institution, they too tend to become more explicit in the cognitive and personal goals to which they contribute. At Teagle, we are finding that this increases both student learning and faculty satisfaction.
Can we achieve increases in both student learning and faculty satisfaction, at the same time? Yes! Laura Palucki Blake of Agnes Scott College gives us one example of a department that got together, got explicit about its expectations, and developed courses that followed through on those expectations. (At Agnes Scott, Teagle support for a first year seminar program encouraged faculty to develop rubrics—systematic sets of agreed-upon grading criteria—and use them to critique student work.)
"I actually had a conversation with assistant professor of art Katherine Smith about this relatively recently, and she had the chance to go back and talk with the rest of the art and art history department about the changes they have seen in their students. Seventy-five percent of full-time tenure track faculty members in art and art history have taken part in reading First Year Seminar [FYS] papers…. They have also actively shared the rubrics…with their students to open a dialogue about expectations for written and oral communication, and to provide a common language for conversation about projects. Lastly, they have also reshaped their senior capstone course into a culminating conversation.
"The faculty agreed that they all have noticed a difference in the students since using the rubrics (both for writing and oral communication)…, and in adapting them for their courses. There were four changes they saw:
… Greater sophistication, elegance, clarity of work, and professionalism were evident [among seniors].
Students are [now] more likely to engage each other. There is an increase in intellectual discourse … between students. Students are responding to each other.
Students are more open to having conversations about their projects, and in getting concrete feedback from both their peers and their instructors.
Students are having these conversations at earlier levels in their academic career. Specifically in studio art, students are considering how work they are doing in lower level courses can be put together in their senior capstone, and anticipating how their work can be useful beyond Agnes Scott College. They are able to articulate earlier their goals as a student…."
Precisely. That brings me to the second of these seismic shifts I have been noticing—evidence, or more precisely, the transfer of the question, "How do we know?" from our scholarly work to our teaching?
Once we start making our education goals explicit, the old forms of assessment based on mastery of the content of individual courses no longer suffice. New forms of evidence are needed, and fortunately new ones are being developed all the time. Some of them are local products, such as portfolios or rubrics for assessing student writing. Others are instruments used nationwide such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA).
Both the locally produced means of assessment and the national ones have been widely used by Teagle grant recipients, and to good advantage. The ones developed on individual campuses have the advantage of responding to the precise questions faculty have about their students. For example, Curt Naser at Fairfield University in Connecticut wanted to know if student writing would really improve if students were encouraged to re-write their papers. Here's what he reports:
"After applying the grading rubric and reviewing how the class did, I go back to the class and spend time going over those features of their papers that as a class they did less well on. I will also meet with students who wish to do so. Students know from the start that they will be able to re-write their papers after the first grade is awarded. In fact, I allow them to re-write repeatedly up until the last day of class.
"Guess what? The students that rewrite their papers do better (as a rule) on the rewrites and if I look at the rubric assessment data on the second or third rounds, the data bears this out."
This mode of assessment responded to an immediate, practical question by a faculty member. But notice that it has a wider implication. Curt was really asking whether it was a good use of his time to allow students to re-write papers and to read and comment on them again. He was thinking about his time in relation to their learning.
That, I believe, is especially important at a time when budgets are tight and teaching loads are high. So let us ask whether importing national instruments of assessment can help as well. They sometimes seem much more threatening than methods developed on individual campuses because they make it possible to compare results on one campus with those on another. But such comparisons can be a great help in many ways, such as getting both faculty and administrators focus their time and effort.
You know that from the national data you have seen here at Hope College. Think of the NSSE data about students' response to questions about institutional contribution to their development of a deeper sense of spirituality. Three out of four of your students answered, "quite a bit" or "very much" to these questions. At peer institutions, only two out of five give a similar response. You are doing extremely well on that measure. The message, surely, is "Keep up the good work; don't let it slip." But when data suggest that many students find the work less academically challenging than their peers do at other similar institutions, then, clearly, that is a point on which to focus your efforts, as you are doing today.
This is one benefit of using national surveys of various sorts to compare results on one campus with those at peer institutions. The benefit is not some system of ranking or an automatic solution to educational problems. Only an informed and caring faculty can figure out what needs to be done. Data make it possible to focus on the most pressing issues and to ask better questions about them.
But there is another benefit as well. The systematic assessment of student learning has helped distinguish practices that really help students learn more deeply from what may be nice and friendly things to do that don't really achieve the results we desire. Here is an example from the Wabash National Study. This study found that the amount of time that faculty spend with first-year students does not, per se, improve student motivation, learning, or general well being. Sitting around shooting the breeze doesn't really cut it. Working closely with students about their academic progress or their vocational plans, on the other hand, produces real benefits.
Let us turn then to the third of these seismic shifts that seem to me to be transforming undergraduate education. From the evidence coming across my desk, I can see that faculty and administrators now have a great advantage over their predecessors. We know much more about how students learn than we did just a few years ago. That new knowledge comes from various sources and functions at two levels, macro and micro.
By "macro" I mean practices at the institutional level, while "micro" applies to the course level. Higher education research has now shown what really works at each of these levels.
Let us start at the macro level. A new report called High-Impact Educational Practices written by George Kuh has recently been published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities. It is, or should be, required reading for every academic administrator, faculty member and graduate student. By using NSSE data, Kuh has been able to identify ten practices that demonstrably increase student engagement and promote deeper learning. What's more, they seem to work in all sorts of institutions with all demographic groups.
Kuh's publication describes these practices in detail and how we know they work. I will just list them:
Common Intellectual Experiences
Diversity / Global learning
Capstone Courses and Projects for seniors
That is a valuable check list. Every institution ought to ask whether it has each of these programs in place and whether they are functioning well. But note also what is not on the list: lectures, multiple choice tests, reliance on a single text book, grading on a curve, etc.
These practices are not just nice ideas, another iteration of brainstorming about things that might work; there is powerful evidence to show that they benefit students, black and white, male and female, freshmen and seniors, every demographic you can think of.
What about the micro level, that is, learning practices in classes, tutorials, advising etc.? Once again we now have evidence, tenuous to be sure in some cases, but converging and in the last analysis compelling. Here are six that are emerging from the work Janet Metcalfe and her colleagues are doing in a Teagle funded Collegium at Columbia University. Her work suggests that learning is optimized when:
Instructors and students focus on the "region of proximal learning," that is, when learning is tailored to the student's current state of knowledge.
Information is generated by students, rather than simply read or heard or viewed.
Testing occurs frequently. Although testing for evaluation has gotten a bad name, testing can play an important role in helping students move information into long-term memory. Testing can help students deal with overconfidence and underconfidence.
Students and instructors recognize the importance of feedback. Feedback needn't occur right away; in fact, delayed feedback can often be better. The key is for students to understand how the correct answer was obtained.
Knowledge is spaced across the semester rather than massed.
Students have opportunities for metacognition, that is, chances to reflect about their own knowledge. Metacognition encourages self-monitoring and self-assessment.
Professor Metcalfe's list can be expanded. For example, drawing on work by Jillian Kinzie of NSSE, one can also point to the following micro practices that seem to have beneficial results especially for first-year students:
Encourage students to discussed ideas from readings and classes with other students.
Structure class so students ask questions or contributed to class discussions.
Have students make a class presentation.
Set high expectations so students work harder than they expected.
Structure classes so students work with other students on projects during class.
Encourage them to work with classmates outside of class on assignments.
Set up opportunities for students to tutor or teach other students (paid or voluntary).
These micro practices can be put to use right now at a very modest cost. In fact, many of them actually save faculty time and may well increase faculty satiusfaction with their work. I don't mean we can improve student learning on the cheap. Many of the macro-level improvements come with a significant price tag. But the current financial crisis, the strains on campus budgets, and existing demands on faculty time are no reason to delay taking the steps that entail manageable costs and demonstrably improve student learning. That can be done right now, on every campus, in every classroom, by every teacher.
That's what we have been seeing at Teagle—changes that can in many different ways, at several different levels, strengthen student learning. Let me end with a question. What happens when these three changes we have been noticing—explicit goals, systematic use of evidence about reaching them, new knowledge about how students learn—are combined? When they function together do you see some minor improvements, or are they synergistic? Do they add up to a wholly new level of student learning?
The honest answer to that question, I believe, is we do not know. We do not know because it has not been tried. No college or university, to the best of my knowledge, has systematically instituted all the approaches that we have been discussing, from explicitly communicating a robust set of institutional goals, to the use of evidence for systematic improvement, to ensuring that the best "macro" programs are in place, to making sure that all faculty members know about and are encouraged to use the most productive "micro" practices in their classes. Some colleges, however, come much closer to this than others, and they deserve much greater recognition than they currently receive. We need strong leadership at the national level to see to it that such colleges are indeed following the best practices to increase student learning. When a new college building is opened, LEED certification lets anyone see whether it meets the highest environmental standards. We need a similar certification for the educational practices.
All this is going to happen, I believe; we have passed the tipping point and somewhere, soon, we will see what happens when synergy among these practices is achieved. But right now, higher education in general still has a way to go. George Kuh's report documents how few American college students actually encounter the practices that can help them most. A majority, but not a big one, of seniors report having had an internship or similar opportunity. But in every other case the students who benefit from best practices are in a minority. Service learning is a powerful stimulus to deeper learning but only 46% of students have participated in such work by their senior year. Learning communities demonstrably benefit student learning, especially during their first year in college. How many first-year students, nationwide, experience them? A mere 17%. Studying abroad also has powerful educational results, but by their senior year, only 14% of students have actually had this experience.
The picture is not much better when one turns from these macro practices to the micro level. Here is one example: getting first-year students to make presentations in class is often a great learning experience for them. Nationwide, almost 15% of all first-year students surveyed by NSSE say they never made such presentations. Only about 34% say they made them "often" or "very often." Or consider this. Teamwork is not only a powerful learning experience in college, it is a capacity that is extremely important in post-college life. We would expect that students would say they had "often" or "very often" worked with other students on projects in class. Instead, responses to NSSE show that a majority of seniors surveyed had "never" or only "sometimes" had that experience.
All of us who care about student learning have a long way to go, but we can already see some major shifts taking place. We now know what works and we cannot settle for less than that. What's more, at every step along the way, students will benefit, and so, I believe, will the colleges and universities that take advantage of the opportunity we now have to improve student learning. The institutions that put our new understanding of education to work will, I believe, break out of the pack. It can be done and it can be done here and now.