When an adviser’s suggestion become guidance that a student follows

Remember the Student Readiness Survey (the SRS)?  We built this survey and compendium report two years ago to give each first year student and his or her adviser a better way to start a recurring conversation about strategizing to succeed during the first year.  We modeled the SRS after research that examines the various psychological and behavioral factors that can influence college success – things like academic habits, academic confidence, propensity to persist, stress management, etc. Faculty advisers who have used the reports as they were intended have found that their interactions with first year students have changed dramatically.

However, we’ve only had anecdotal data to suggest that this might be an effective tool until now.  So in our new mid-year survey of first year students, among several questions about the interactions between student and their adviser, we included one item that specifically focuses on the SRS.  Students responded to this statement.

  • “My first year adviser helped me understand my Student Readiness Survey (SRS) results.”

The available response options and the response distributions were:

We never talked about them (what is the SRS?) 76 20%
only briefly 74 20%
yes, but they weren’t all that useful 131 35%
yes, and they influenced how I approached the beginning of my freshman year 94 25%

As you can infer from the response options above, we would like to find that the students who selected, “Yes, and they influenced how I approached the beginning of my freshman year,” also had more positive responses to other items that we know are important for a successful first year.

Although we still have a lot to analyze, we’ve already found one statistically significant relationship that I think is worth sharing.  Another item on the same survey asked students to respond to the statement,

  • “My first year adviser made me feel like I could succeed at Augustana.”

Student responses to this item were:

strongly disagree 9 2%
disagree 16 4%
neutral 60 16%
agree 144 38%
strongly agree 146 39%

Obviously, this is an important question because students’ self-belief is often vital to their success.  Moreover, this self-belief is directly influenced by the messages students get during their interactions with faculty, staff, and administrators.

One of the more important interactions shaping this belief involves students and their advisers.  So we tested the relationship between these two items while holding constant several factors that we thought might also impact whether or not the student might indicate that (a) the student’s adviser helped him or her understand the SRS results, and (b) this  conversation influenced how the student approached the beginning of his or her freshman year.  These controls included measures that might account for the degree to which the student might already be fully prepared to succeed in their first year (and thus not really need the additional advice) or the degree to which the student might find guidance through other means like peer groups or faculty interactions (that would then “wash out” the impact of the SRS report and subsequent conversation).

Sure enough, we found a statistically significant and relatively large positive effect.  In other words, as students indicated a more positive response to the notion that their adviser made them feel like they could succeed at Augustana, students were also more likely (much more likely, to be frank) to report that their conversation with their adviser about the SRS results had influenced the way that they approached their freshman year.

This finding seems to validate the way that we designed the SRS report and the way that first year adviser training has emphasized using it as a formative conversation starter. Students often seem to respond particularly well to advice when they hear it as strategizing to increase their own likelihood of success rather than just something more that someone else has told them to do.  In addition, this finding suggests that a ready-made way for advisers to be successful in getting their students to act upon their good guidance is to use the SRS as a tool to start this conversation, revisit the strategies they discussed with the student on a later date, and continue to work with the student to build an actionable plan for success in college.

So even though it is almost the middle of the spring term and you might have long since forgotten about your students’ SRS reports, now might be just the time to get them out and revisit those results with your students.

Make it a good day,

Mark

But the story is so much more interesting than the truth!

A couple of weeks ago, the Delta Cost Project produced a report titled “Labor Intensive or Labor Expensive? Changing Staffing and Compensation Patterns in Higher Education.”  The authors examined several decades of IPEDS data to better understand the hiring and compensation trends that might have driven tuition increases across each sector of higher education.  Overall, the report concluded that higher education institutions’ workforces had increased on average by 28% in the last decade as college enrollments increased at a similar pace.

However, the sound bite that won the news cycle asserted that this report supported the “administrative bloat” meme – the claim that an explosion of non-faculty hires has driven increasing tuition costs and has eroded institutional support for (or as some folks would spin it – the supremacy of the) faculty.  The report did highlight several national trends over the last decade including increases in part-time faculty, increases in mid-level administrators, increases in the cost of benefits for all types of employees, and a drop in the ratio of faculty to administrators (i.e., there are more administrators per faculty member now than there were 20 years ago).

But all of these numbers in the Delta Cost Project report portrayed national trends.  A number of faculty and administrators asked me to examine our own Augustana data to compare whether our trends replicate these national data.  So I presented our local data to the Faculty Senate last week and have linked the power point for you to see here.  In order to make any sense of the rest of this post, you’ll have to click on the power point and have a look at the graphs in it.

I’d like to quickly point to a couple of take-aways and then ask the same question that I asked at the end of my presentation.

First, as you can see from the graphs in the power point, Augustana has not mirrored the national trends in the relationship between faculty and administrator positions.  In fact, we’ve gone the other direction.  Faculty positions have increased while administrator positions have declined.

Second, our own increasing use of part-time faculty parallels the national trends, although to a far smaller degree.  Similarly, albeit to an even smaller degree, we’ve increased the number of non-tenure track full time faculty in recent years.

Now I don’t expect for a second that presenting our local data will forever quiet the claim that administrative growth at Augustana is out of control.  But I would like to ask one question: What do any of these numbers have to do with student learning?  Do we know that more faculty, a lower student-faculty ratio, or a lower faculty-administrator ratio somehow improves our retention or graduation rates?  The little evidence we have would suggest that none of these changes produce any effect.  Likewise, there is little evidence to suggest that more administrators,  a lower student-administrator ratio, or a lower administrator-faculty ratio is a quick fix either.  The fact is that we have no idea what the ideal mix of faculty and administrators might be.  In fact, the answer might not be in the numbers themselves, but rather in how all of our faculty, administrators, and staff collaborate to create the best possible conditions for student acclimation, learning, and growth.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Supporting Students IN ORDER TO Challenge Them

The most fundamental of frameworks for successful student development, learning, and growth is the synergistic concept of challenge and support.  Essentially, this concept articulates the critical balancing of two approaches to facilitate learning.  First, If we want to help students grow in substantial ways, we have to challenge them to push themselves beyond where they are comfortable.  Then, in order to minimize the likelihood that they will quit in the midst of this discomfort, we must provide encouragement (support) to help them persist toward their goal. It is equally important to recognize that students need both types of interaction, no matter the ordering of them.  So if we want students to respond positively when we challenge them, we have to have already built a foundation of trust (by expressing a belief that they are capable of success) so that they will be willing to take the risk in responding to our challenge.  In this way, challenge and support function almost like Yin and Yang.  If we want our students to grow, and more importantly take responsibility for their own growth, neither one of these two concepts works without the continuous healthy presence of the other.

In the mid-year first year survey, we asked freshmen how often their instructors had pointed out something that they had done well.  We asked this question because we wanted to find out more about the degree to which students experienced support.  (Last week I discussed one of the questions that addressed the degree to which students’ experience challenge.) The responses were distributed like this:

  • Never – 3%
  • Rarely – 15%
  • Sometimes – 44%
  • Often – 29%
  • Very Often – 9%

Frankly, if you were to force me to pick an “ideal” response distribution, I’d say that I would like to see every student choose “sometimes” or “often.”  At the same time, I’d hope that this response was balanced by students’ indicating that they also experienced consistent levels of challenge. Furthermore, I’d hope that this response was a reflection of our students’ experiences in each course rather than the possibility that our students all had some professors that were uniformly critical and others who were uniformly encouraging.

It troubles me that 69 of the 375 respondents (about 60% of our freshman class completed this survey) answered “rarely” or “never.”  Of course these students may have also been classic screw-ups who rarely or never turned in work that merited a compliment.  But even if that were so, given that human beings need a combination of challenge AND support to successfully take on a challenge and persist through to overcome it, throwing our hands in the air and saying that these students’ work didn’t merit a positive word simply increases the chances that they won’t succeed.

Humbly, I would suggest that our job as educators isn’t to ensure failure.  Instead, I’d suggest that our job is to increase the likelihood of success, especially among those who don’t rise to the occasion on their own or who already had the tools before they got here.

One important detail to remember is that these questions asked students to indicate the degree to which they think they received compliments for something that they did well. That isn’t the same as trying to find out if their instructors actually gave them compliments. Sometimes students don’t recognize the words we say or write as compliments just because of where they are in their own development.  For example, students may well not understand the academic language we often use to describe their effort in a paper as a compliment.

So as you begin to provide feedback to students in discussion, on written work, in online fora, or on other assignments, find ways to provide enough support to gain their trust. For then, and only then, will you be in a position to really challenge them when it matters and push them to excel beyond what they originally thought was possible.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

What if your sense of how hard your students work doesn’t match how hard they think they work?

There are so many times when I read or hear of a great idea that I know would help me in my work. But at the key moment when I could really put that piece of information to use, the little nugget might as well be circling a distant galaxy. So one of the things I am going to try to do better is write posts that are more relevant to the issues faculty and staff face when they face them. You’ve probably heard of Just-in-Time Teaching (it’s a great book, by the way). Think of this as just-in-time data.

Even though the spring term starts this week, many of you are probably still toying with the the details of your syllabus(es), thinking about what you might do to make your class just a bit better without blowing it up and creating an avalanche of work for yourself precisely when you are already swamped. A couple of weeks ago I wrote about evidence from our own data suggesting the potential benefits of adding an early assignment to your course. Two other items from our just-completed mid-year survey of freshmen put in mind one other important, and sometimes easily forgotten, issue that can also make a big difference in your student’s learning and your course’s success.

Freshmen were asked at the end of last term to respond to these two items.

My instructors set high expectations for my learning and growth.

never 3 1%
rarely 6 2%
sometimes 38 10%
often 163 43%
most or all of the time 165 44%

I really worked hard to meet my instructor’s expectations.

never 2 1%
rarely 2 1%
sometimes 38 10%
often 146 39%
most or all of the time 187 50%

On one level, the fact that these two items correlate so closely is a good thing (it would indeed be frightening if they didn’t!). However, as I thought more about these two response sets, I began to wonder: would 89% of our faculty (the proportion that matches our students’ response distribution) also say that first-year students “really worked hard” to meet expectations “often” or “most or all of the time”?

My guess is that there is something worth unpacking here. To be fair, it’s possible that the questions themselves are problematic.  Maybe students aren’t comfortable suggesting that their instructors didn’t push them all that much or that they “mailed it in” more often than not. Yet we have prior NSSE data to suggest that our first year students complete homework assignments and write multiple drafts of papers more often than students at comparable institutions. Because multiple data findings pointing in the same direction make it harder to challenge the validity of a general claim, I’m inclined to suspect that the data points outlined above might indeed suggest something worth considering.

That leaves us with the possibility (especially if you are one of those faculty who don’t think that your first year students “really work hard” to meet your expectations about 90% of the time) that our students either don’t always have a clear sense of what is expected of them or that maybe we aren’t always holding them to our own high expectations when we provide grades and feedback.  Moreover, and I mean this genuinely, more than a few of our students may not yet have had the kind of life experiences that teach one what it really means to work hard to accomplish something.

Of course we know from our daily work that learning is messy business. Human beings aren’t always so thrilled to be stretched outside of their comfort zone, nor are we always excited by the prospect of failure as a necessary precursor of real learning. This is why masterful teaching is a constant balancing act of pushing students beyond where they might want to go while at the same time supporting them by expressing a belief (even if it’s more theoretical than actual) that they can accomplish what you’ve ask them to do.

Most of us have probably been challenged at least once by a student who doesn’t think that they deserve the grade you gave them. That conversation is always more difficult if the student doesn’t grasp the nature of the standards you applied to their work.

I mention all of this in order to suggest that student responses to these two questions may represent the degree to which our students really (sometimes desperately) need clear, precise, and pointed guidance about faculty expectations for quality work.  Although we might all think everyone knows what it means to write clearly, students – especially freshmen – often have only the vaguest notion of what that actually looks like.

There may be lots of other things going on behind these responses.  In fact, if you’ve got an observation that you’d like to share, by all means add a comment below.  But if you want one fairly simple thing to insert into your course(s) that can pay dividends later in the term, take some extra time to clarify your expectations for your students in ways that they can understand.  Then you can truly hold their feet to the fire when you push them to “really work hard” in order to meet the expectations you set.

Make it a good day,

Mark

What if early feedback made your students work harder? (Spoiler Alert)

One of the ways that we come up with questions for our freshman and senior surveys is by asking advisers about the concerns that students express to them. If we start to hear a particular theme, we try to find a way to capture that issue in a single question. Then, with the data from that item, we can test to see (1) if it really is a common problem or concern, and (2) whether that issue correlates with other experiences or the broader learning outcomes that we know are important for student success.

This is how we developed the freshman survey item to which students agreed or disagreed on a five point scale, “I had access to my grades and other feedback early enough in the term to adjust my study habits or seek help as necessary.” Numerous students had claimed that they didn’t know that they were struggling in one or more of their classes until very late in the term. They suggested that it wasn’t as if they had known their grades early in the term but hadn’t sought out academic support, but rather that they had either not been assigned enough (or more often, any) graded work to know their academic standing or that their homework wasn’t graded and returned or posted until well after the middle of the term. By the time they received their first substantive grade it was often well past the drop or withdrawal date and there was little time to recover. Moreover, these students often felt the late term pressure and in most cases had emotionally “given up” on the class.

So we inserted this item into last year’s freshman survey. Of the 286 responses, the answers were distributed like this:

  • Strongly Disagree – 30 (10%)
  • Disagree – 64 (22%)
  • Neutral – 77 (27%)
  • Agree – 89 (31%)
  • Strongly Agree – 22 (8%)

After seeing an even more “normal” distribution of responses (i.e., a bar graph of the responses that looks like a bell curve) from this year’s new mid-year freshman survey, I decided that it would be worth looking in more depth at this data to see if this item might be predictive of any other important important student-faculty interactions.

In fact, there were several student-faculty interaction items that were significantly influenced by early access to grades and feedback.  In each case, the more strongly students agreed with having access to grades and feedback, the more strongly they agreed with each of the following statements.

  • My one-on-one interactions with faculty have had a positive influence on my intellectual growth and interest in ideas.
  • My professors were interested in helping students grow in more than academic areas.
  • Faculty and staff at Augustana treated me like an individual.

Moreover, these statistically significant relationships held even after we controlled for incoming ACT score, parents’ education, and the Student Readiness Survey scales for academic habits, academic confidence, and persistence and grit.

By itself, these findings are important. But we found one other result that seems particularly useful. Even after controlling for the effects of the pre-college characteristics listed above, early access to grades and other feedback produced a statistically significant effect to a question that asked, “How often did you work harder than you have in the past in order to meet your instructor’s expectations?”

In other words, students who had access to grades and other feedback early enough in the term to adjust their study habits also indicated that they worked harder than they had in the past to meet their instructor’s expectations.

Why might this be? It might be because the early feedback gives students a chance to check themselves and reflect on their current level of effort. Furthermore, if the feedback comes in the form of an actual grade, it’s data that is difficult to ignore (we all have seen students demonstrate impressive levels of denial or willful blindness). This finding might also reflect the likelihood of an educational environment that emphasizes a continual exchange between the teacher and the student. This kind of environment is much more likely to result in a deeper level of student engagement in a course.

Yes, this finding isn’t absolute proof.  And yes, this is a statistically significant finding from only one cohort of freshmen.  And no, you’ll never get smoking gun evidence that one pedagogical practice will transform your most curmudgeonly student into a singing apostle for your discipline. However, this finding does comport with a compellingly large body of research on effective pedagogy for engaged student learning.

So you want your students to work harder in your class? Insert a substantive graded assignment early in the term. Turn that assignment around quickly with some extended formative feedback. Students will use that feedback to better grasp the degree to which they are working hard enough to meet your expectations. With that information they can adjust their efforts or seek out that academic resources might help them increase their likelihood of success.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Refining the way we deliver the liberal arts

First of all, thanks to everyone who reads Delicious Ambiguity for putting up with a three-part series of posts.  Somehow it seems to me like it requires an extra dose of ego to think that any idea is so big or important that it deserves three separate posts, so I feel sort of sheepish for even trying to pull it off.  More likely, this endeavor could just mean that I’m so damn long-winded that I can’t say anything of substance within my self-imposed word limit.

With that said, this is the “refining” post and is to be the last of the three-part bit I promised on reframing, refocusing, and refining the way that we operationalize the liberal arts. Partly because I’m late with this post and partly because it would be ironic to write a painfully long post about the act of refining, I’m going to make an extra effort to be concise.

I think that we should refine the way that we deliver the liberal arts because the quality of any educator’s effort (i.e., the degree to which an educator influences learning) can’t be separated from the amount of time that an educator has to dedicate to this effort. We know that helping students develop the skills and dispositions necessary to succeed in life requires substantial personal interaction. Over the last decade, it appears that we’ve become a very busy college.  We’ve added a host of legitimate educational and administrative responsibilities at every level, revamped programs and curricula, and seem to constantly on the brink of deciding to change something big. Yet we have taken very little away even as we’ve taken on all of these entirely defensible programs, pedagogies, and policies.  During the last twelve months of strategic planning discussions, the question that many raised, “But what are we going to take away?” seemed sometimes to be as much a lament as it was a serious question.

So I offer a set of findings from one part of last year’s senior survey and a few musing on some potential implications of these findings in the hope that it will at least fuel continued discussion of the things that we should take away.  I know there will always be some who are personally vested in the things that we might decide to take away, but (1) if we are ultimately about the experience of the students, and (2) we know that our ability to provide the best learning experience for students requires us to be efficient in the time we allot to each educational aspect of that experience, then we have to be brave enough as a community to make these choices.

Last spring, after the faculty had approved our college-wide learning outcomes earlier in the fall, I thought it might be useful to get some sort of baseline sense of where students think they develop these skills – not as evidence of where they actually gain these skills, but rather some reflection of the degree to which the experience we offer is as holistic as we’d like to think it is.  Thus, I inserted a set of questions in the senior survey that asked students to identify the experiences where they think they developed each of these learning outcomes.  For each learning outcome, students were given a list of college experiences and were allow to choose as many as applied.  Here are the results.

Disciplinary Knowledge
Major(s) or Minor(s) Courses 93.7%
General Education Courses (AGES) 45.9%
Augie Choice Programs (Study Abroad, Internship, or Undergraduate Research) 45.9%
Residence Life Experience 11.3%
Participation in Student Organizations and Clubs 28.5%
Working On or Off Campus 29.5%
Informal Interactions with Faculty and Staff 34.3%
Informal Interactions with Peers 25.4%
Volunteering in the Community 19.8%
Senior Inquiry 55.6%
None of the Above 0.4%
Critical Thinking and Information Literacy
Major(s) or Minor(s) Courses 91.3%
General Education Courses (AGES) 58.4%
Augie Choice Programs (Study Abroad, Internship, or Undergraduate Research) 36.4%
Residence Life Experience 10.7%
Participation in Student Organizations and Clubs 23.0%
Working On or Off Campus 25.9%
Informal Interactions with Faculty and Staff 29.7%
Informal Interactions with Peers 26.7%
Volunteering in the Community 11.9%
Senior Inquiry 57.8%
None of the Above 0.4%
Quantitative Literacy
Major(s) or Minor(s) Courses 77.6%
General Education Courses (AGES) 50.5%
Augie Choice Programs (Study Abroad, Internship, or Undergraduate Research) 15.2%
Residence Life Experience 3.2%
Participation in Student Organizations and Clubs 8.7%
Working On or Off Campus 16.0%
Informal Interactions with Faculty and Staff 10.9%
Informal Interactions with Peers 8.1%
Volunteering in the Community 3.4%
Senior Inquiry 39.0%
None of the Above 3.4%
Collaborative Leadership
Major(s) or Minor(s) Courses 62.0%
General Education Courses (AGES) 33.1%
Augie Choice Programs (Study Abroad, Internship, or Undergraduate Research) 37.4%
Residence Life Experience 27.3%
Participation in Student Organizations and Clubs 65.5%
Working On or Off Campus 46.7%
Informal Interactions with Faculty and Staff 29.9%
Informal Interactions with Peers 43.2%
Volunteering in the Community 40.0%
Senior Inquiry 24.6%
None of the Above 1.4%
Intercultural Competency
Major(s) or Minor(s) Courses 47.1%
General Education Courses (AGES) 48.5%
Augie Choice Programs (Study Abroad, Internship, or Undergraduate Research) 46.9%
Residence Life Experience 26.5%
Participation in Student Organizations and Clubs 38.6%
Working On or Off Campus 27.9%
Informal Interactions with Faculty and Staff 19.0%
Informal Interactions with Peers 40.0%
Volunteering in the Community 37.0%
Senior Inquiry 17.2%
None of the Above 5.1%
Communication Competency
Major(s) or Minor(s) Courses 84.4%
General Education Courses (AGES) 60.6%
Augie Choice Programs (Study Abroad, Internship, or Undergraduate Research) 41.4%
Residence Life Experience 20.2%
Participation in Student Organizations and Clubs 41.6%
Working On or Off Campus 35.2%
Informal Interactions with Faculty and Staff 40.2%
Informal Interactions with Peers 37.2%
Volunteering in the Community 22.4%
Senior Inquiry 51.3%
None of the Above 1.2%
Creative Thinking
Major(s) or Minor(s) Courses 79.6%
General Education Courses (AGES) 59.2%
Augie Choice Programs (Study Abroad, Internship, or Undergraduate Research) 36.6%
Residence Life Experience 13.3%
Participation in Student Organizations and Clubs 36.6%
Working On or Off Campus 26.1%
Informal Interactions with Faculty and Staff 23.0%
Informal Interactions with Peers 27.1%
Volunteering in the Community 17.4%
Senior Inquiry 49.3%
None of the Above 2.6%
Ethical Citizenship
Major(s) or Minor(s) Courses 59.4%
General Education Courses (AGES) 45.7%
Augie Choice Programs (Study Abroad, Internship, or Undergraduate Research) 40.8%
Residence Life Experience 25.5%
Participation in Student Organizations and Clubs 42.0%
Working On or Off Campus 36.6%
Informal Interactions with Faculty and Staff 31.9%
Informal Interactions with Peers 39.6%
Volunteering in the Community 42.6%
Senior Inquiry 26.1%
None of the Above 4.8%
Intellectual Curiosity
Major(s) or Minor(s) Courses 87.1%
General Education Courses (AGES) 59.2%
Augie Choice Programs (Study Abroad, Internship, or Undergraduate Research) 49.5%
Residence Life Experience 9.3%
Participation in Student Organizations and Clubs 27.7%
Working On or Off Campus 23.6%
Informal Interactions with Faculty and Staff 42.0%
Informal Interactions with Peers 34.9%
Volunteering in the Community 19.8%
Senior Inquiry 51.1%
None of the Above 2.2%

To some degree, the implications of these findings may lie in the eye of the beholder.  But what jumps out to me is the degree to which major and minor courses seem to do so much of the heavy lifting.  If this is really so, then it is no wonder that faculty would be pressed for time to do much else besides teach students.  However, if we would like to create a more holistic educational experience and do so in a way that allows all of us to be equally involved in the development of our students, then there might be some logic in considering ways for faculty to pass on some of the responsibilities of learning in specific areas.

But another way to read this data is to consider the degree to which students don’t indicate experiences outside of the academic realm more often.  And this might be a more useful way to think about designing a comprehensive college experience that is more effective and more efficient.  In an odd way, we might find that the refinement we need to consider is not that the responsibility for students’ learning across each of the learning outcomes is distributed more exclusively among individual experiences, but rather that each of us explicitly understands our role in contributing (1) a small but crucial building block to students’ development and (2) the sinew that connects that building block to another block that can only be gained through a different experience offered elsewhere on our campus (or an off-campus experience facilitated by someone on campus).

Someone once said that planning to do something is the easy part; the hard part was actually doing it.  I suspect for us this will also be true.  The strategic planning was the easy part.  The hard part will be implementing this plan in a way that accomplishes the learning goals and student success to which we aspire.

So let’s roll up our sleeves.  We’ve got work to do.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Reframing How We “Deliver” the Liberal Arts

Last week I promised to spend the next several posts unpacking what I meant by “reframing, refocusing, and refining the way that we operationalize the liberal arts.” At the outset, let me emphasize that the focal point of these posts isn’t some new-fangled definition of the liberal arts. Instead, I want to concentrate on the way we make that learning happen; the way that we deliver the liberal arts.

To give this post some context, let’s begin with some data. (What did you expect!). Earlier this year, I asked my two student-workers to review 25 years of Augustana alumni data and identify those people who were working in a profession unrelated to any of their majors. Over four weeks we examined 10,680 files from the Augustana Advancement Office. As you can imagine, this is an inexact science, so we decided to be conservative in deciding whether someone worked in a “matched” profession (something that aligned with one of their majors) or not. For example, we assumed that a person who majored in art and was listed as a teacher was likely an art teacher and therefore we counted them as a match. Conversely, if an English major was listed as a park ranger? Bingo.

After categorizing and counting all of these alumni, we found that 4,137 of our 10,680 Augustana alums are working in professions completely unrelated to their majors – about 39%. In addition, while we found that alums from pre-professional majors like CSD, education, pre-med were working in a corresponding field somewhat more often than alums from traditional liberal arts majors like philosophy, history, english (for somewhat obvious reasons), we have a healthy dose of “mismatched” alums coming from virtually every major. For example, 41% of our former accounting majors are no longer accountants, 33% of physics majors aren’t physicists, and 20% of education majors aren’t teaching (the same is true for pre-med majors).

Yet these individuals are anything but failures.  On the contrary, many of them are quite successful, by any definition, and are clearly in positions of substantial responsibility. Others seem to be doing quite well in fields that simply did not exist when they graduated from Augustana (e.g., an early 1990s grad who now works in cell phone technology). Still others appear to have lived remarkably interesting and satisfying lives. I have to admit, as we looked through this list of alums I sometimes felt little pangs of envy, imagining the stories that some of these people probably have to tell.

So what does this data point mean? First of all, I think it suggests that the inclination to measure our institutional success by linking the major per se to a job and a salary is fundamentally misguided. Our graduates are supposed to leave Augustana with an array of opportunities that they did not have when they arrived. Moreover, those opportunities aren’t supposed to sit along a single path, nor are they supposed to avail themselves all at once. A metric that treats a major as a narrowing mechanism just doesn’t match our institutional mission.

Second, the fact that 40% of our alums are in professions other than their major corroborates what we know about present day professional life. The very concept of the career as 40-plus years in a single profession is almost extinct. Although the claim that a person will have seven careers a lifetime is up for some debate, it is clear that most people will change jobs on more than one occasion – especially during the first decade after college. So it seems to me that our educational goal for all graduates should ultimately be to prepare them to thrive in the midst of change. Sometimes that means adapting to new responsibilities and shifting conditions. Sometimes that means making the leap to a new and completely different opportunity. And sometimes it means resiliently responding to disappointment (or worse) in a way that turns lemons into lemonade.

And what does all of this have to do with reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts?

A liberal arts environment is an ideal setting for developing students’ ability to thrive in the midst of change, but only if we use the breadth of disciplines and the epistemologies within them as starting points for learning rather than an end in and of itself. This breadth of disciplines should become the tools that we use to develop our students’ ability to see a hypothesis, a claim, a problem, or an opportunity from a variety of perspectives and deepen their understanding of the issues at hand. While the knowledge of content within the discipline is a necessary precursor to understanding, as our graduates’ lives move them further from their final term at Augustana, the skills they developed to thrive in the midst of uncertainty or change will inevitably become more important than the content knowledge they acquired.

So the learning experiences that matter the most may in fact be the things that we consider the least. Right now we focus the most time, resources, and energy on the classes we offer, the activities we organize, the experiences we sponsor. Reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts means placing increased focus on the way that students connect these experiences and apply the ideas from one experience to succeed in another. Moreover, it means guiding students to strategically set up the ideal set of inter-experience connections that best prepare them to achieve their post-graduate aspirations.

Finally, reframing the way that we deliver the liberal arts won’t matter much unless students grasp the value of this reframing. This means that students need to know, from the very beginning, the strategy for why they should consider one choice over another – or even to engage that choice at all. While an increased focus on the spaces and connections between experiences might seem daunting, fully developing our ability to help students understand this new way of thinking about a college experience may be even more difficult.

But if we don’t roll up our sleeves and take on this challenge, it will continue to be more and more difficult to explain why a family or a student shouldn’t just accumulate the necessary number of course credits by any means necessary (AKA for the cheapest cost possible) in order to obtain an undergraduate degree.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Wait . . . why focus on life after college?

In the last few years several prominent liberal arts colleges have made post-graduate success a central measure of the institution’s educational quality (for example, see such plans or programs at St. Olaf College and The College of Wooster). Despite what some old school moon-howlers might have you believe, this move isn’t driven by a rejection of the liberal arts or an administrative coup d’etat. (If we’d given up on the liberal arts, we’d have all gone for higher paying gigs at some fly-by-night for-profit a long time ago, and – with all due love and respect for my administrative compatriots – we aren’t nearly smart enough to pull of a decent coup d’etat.)

Rather, what most of us have come to realize is that in order for the liberal arts to thrive into the next century, we have to reframe, refocus, and refine the way that we operationalize the liberal arts in the context of our current social, cultural, and economic conditions. Just like the approach that drove the successful emergence of small liberal arts college during the 18th and 19th centuries, we are again faced with the need to adapt our commitment to developing creative and innovative problem-solvers through interdisciplinarity and the synthesis of great ideas.

In the next three posts, I’d like to explain in more depth what I mean by reframing, refocusing, and refining the way that we operationalize the liberal arts in a 21st century context.  But for now, I’d like to highlight one data point that I think underscores a need to strengthen our focus on preparing all students equally for life after college.

In the 2013 administration of our recent graduate survey (alumni surveyed nine months after they’ve graduated from Augustana), we asked our alums about the degree to which they thought Augustana prepared them to succeed in their current endeavors.  Since we had already organized the survey to take those who had chosen to go to graduate school and those who had pursued immediate employment to separate subsets of questions, they answered two different versions of this questions, each worded to more specifically get at the relationship between their Augustana education and their current path.

The difference between the proportion of alums who felt they were prepared well depending upon whether they went to grad school or went to work seemed large enough to consider further.  Among those who went to grad school, 78% said that they were “fairly well” or “very well” prepared for their grad program.  By contrast, among those who went to full-time employment, only 65% said that they were “fairly well” or “very well” prepared for their first job. (The other response options were “somewhat,” “a little,” and “not at all.”)

Why might this be?  In digging further into the data, it appears that some initial suppositions don’t always hold true.  Pre-professional majors don’t always feel well prepared for their subsequent path (whether it be work or grad school) and more traditional liberal arts majors don’t always feel less well-prepared for their subsequent path.  We didn’t find a strong correlation between a student’s final GPA and their sense of preparation. Moreover, both groups of respondents (grad students and full-time employees) were scattered across a range of programs or professions, so it didn’t appear that any specific undergraduate programs were driving the results one way or the other.

Interestingly, it appears that the students who got a preview of what life would be like during the next phase of their own post-graduate path were the ones who felt best prepared by their Augustana experience.  Alums currently employed in a job who also participated in an internship while at Augie tended to feel better prepared than those who did not do an internship.  Similarly, the alums currently in grad school who also participated in a research project either with faculty or on their own tended to feel better prepared than those who did not have any research experience.

In general, this data point suggests that we might need to improve the degree to which we prepare students who go directly into the workforce after college.  In some ways, it doesn’t seem particularly surprising that an institution largely governed by faculty with Ph.D.s from elite research universities would be better at preparing students to succeed in grad school than in full-time employment.  This might be simply a case of something where we have to put a more concerted effort into preparing the students who aim for a full-time job right out of college just because our frame of reference would likely advantage graduate school preparation.

This finding also seems to provide some insight into the kinds of advice that we ought to give students based on their post-graduate goals.  Students intending to go into the workforce might be better suited for internships while students with plans for grad school might be ideal candidates for an extended research experience.  And while some of these experiences might be credit-bearing, in many cases they are outside the scope of the curriculum; another reason why it is important for advising to be conceived as a means of developing students holistically instead of merely selecting courses.

In the end, I don’t know that this finding demands a wealth of professional development for faculty – although if done right such assistance is not a bad thing.  Instead, resolving this gap may require little more than recognizing the extent of our own experiences, adjusting for our biases, and explicitly connecting students with the  right resources that uniquely fit with their post-graduate aspirations.

Welcome back to campus!  It’s lonely around here without you.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Athletes, Enrollment, and Retention

It’s becoming more and more clear that the way we have thought about retention in the past is just too simplistic. Too often we use terms like “levers” or “buttons” in suggesting that if we could only identify the right thing to change, then retention would improve. However, when we don’t take the time to fully match our metaphor to the complexity of our circumstances, we run the real risk of putting in a lot of effort for very little improvement. For example, if we like the idea of one or more “levers” that we think we can move to systematically impact our retention rate, our metaphor can’t assume that the levers under our control are independent from each other. As we all know, the educational endeavor in which we are involved is much too complex. For our metaphor to be accurate (and therefore useful in identifying a course of action that has the best chance of producing positive results), we have to understand that each lever over which we have control is welded to other levers. In essence, moving one lever will automatically re-position others that also affect the long-term health of the college.

One example of this complexity became more apparent recently as we were examining our retention data among athletes.  Over the years we’ve found that typical first-to-second year retention rates among students who self-report as athletes are higher than our college average, and four, five, and six year graduation rates of athletes don’t differ between athletes and non-athletes. However, in digging a little deeper we found that about 45% of the students who left during the 2012 school year (a subset of the all the students who leave sometime between their first and second fall terms) started that academic year as athletes, a much higher proportion than the overall percentage of students who identify as athletes at the end of the year (about 30%). Unlike prior retention analysis where we used student self-reports of athletic status, for this analysis we looked at all of the students who were listed on all sports team’s initial rosters – including all the students who quit their sport before the end of the season and therefore didn’t report themselves as athletes on the end-of-the-year survey.

At first, one might think that this is a problem for athletics to solve (stereotypes of the hard-nosed dictator/coach chasing off less capable athletes might come to mind). However, further exploration exposes the degree to which our levers are welded together. You’ll forgive me if I borrow from my decade of experience in college athletics here to make my point.

It is no secret that our investment in athletics is, at least in part, based on the reality that athletic opportunity is a potent enrollment draw.  Our coaches play a significant role in encouraging perspective students to come to Augustana, both by initiating recruiting relationships and by offering opportunities to those students who inquire. This is clearly evident in the size of many of our sports’ initial rosters; especially among men’s sports. However, in the same way that the student-faculty ratio matters in creating a high touch, personalized college experience, the athlete-coach ratio matters too.  Large rosters can make it more difficult for a coach to connect with each player. And especially among younger athletes who may have less opportunity to compete due to the presence of older, more skilled players, this can exacerbate feelings of uncertainty and self-doubt that sometimes produce a decision to leave the team – and even the college. In the end, the way that we are using one lever (athletics) to meet enrollment goals may be increasing the likelihood of attrition among a certain subset of students.

Please understand that I am not advocating that we change anything.  Instead, given the the number of sports we offer and the way that we current organize our athletics programs, I am simply pointing out an example in which a lever we use quite effectively to meet one goal (enrollment) might well be creating an obstacle that limits our ability to meet another goal (retention).  I suppose one could argue that we should consider offering an additional sport or two so that athletics could still recruit the same overall number of students while reducing the average roster size of the individual sports. However, that depends on whether the increased costs of an additional sport (salaries, facilities, operating funds) would be offset by a potential increase in retention of students who came to Augustana with the intention of playing a sport. Obviously this is a pretty sticky question without a clear answer.

Again, my point here is only to highlight a trade-off – one that might be entirely legitimate – where we meet one set of goals in a way that potentially increases the difficulty of meeting another set of goals. Optimizing our retention rate is about finding our sweet spot. It’s not just about moving individual levers. That is what makes it so incredibly challenging – especially when we are trying to squeeze the last drops of optimizing out of something that we already do comparatively pretty well.

Make it a good day.  And enjoy the holiday.

Mark

Does our educational community lose something when seniors live off campus?

I’ve yet to find an Augustana senior who wishes they lived on campus.  In fact, the seniors I’ve talked to seem almost relieved to finally stretch their wings and move into the surrounding neighborhoods, even though they often say they had hoped to find a cheaper or nicer place nearby.  As far as I can tell, seniors have lived off campus at least since the 1970s, and this practice is so embedded into our culture that the very name of our junior students’ housing – Transitional Living Areas (TLAs) – announces our desire to prepare seniors to live on their own.

As our strategic planning discussions have coalesced around designing and implementing a purposefully integrated, comprehensive Augustana learning experience, I’ve been thinking about the real challenge of creating a plan that allows us to balance the individualized needs of each student with the core elements of a genuine community.  Although this might not appear all that difficult at first, efforts to achieve goals for individuals or certain subgroups of students can sometimes run at cross-purposes with maintaining a community culture optimal for student learning.  Several years ago we found an interesting example of such unintended consequences when we discovered that our efforts to encourage students to join multiple campus organizations (knowing that such behavior often enhances social integration and ultimately influences retention) was likely, albeit unintentionally, limiting the chances for conversations between students from substantially different backgrounds or demographic groups (thus undermining our efforts to increase students’ intercultural competence).

With all of this in mind, I was stuck by one data point from last year’s seniors about the impact of our fourth year residential status. The question asked our graduating seniors, “How often did you participate in on-campus events during your senior year?”  Responses ranged as follows:

  • less than when I lived on campus (200 – 39.9%)
  • about the same as when I lived on campus (279 – 55.7%)
  • more than when I lived on campus (22 – 4.4%)

So how does this relate to the aforementioned tension between encouraging individual development and fostering an ideal educational community?

First of all, when we talk about Augustana College, we almost uniformly talk about the educational and developmental benefits of a four-year residential experience.  I suspect that when we talk in these terms, we imagine that this distinguishing characteristic plays an influential role at both the level of the individual and the community.  At the individual level it presents itself in the form of leadership positions and the responsibility of being the senior class.  At the communal level it presents itself through those same channels but in terms of the influence of those leaders on younger students and the atmosphere and legacy that a senior class can create that can permeate an entire campus.  While this can play out in both directions through formal channels and during formally organized events, the broader impacts are likely more pervasive through informal rituals and signaling (to use a term familiar to social psychologists and anthropologists).

However, if our seniors are living off campus in their last year, it seems like this could, at the very least, limit the educational potential and influence of the fourth year students on the rest of the student community.  Based on the substantial proportion of seniors who indicated that they participated in fewer campus events than when they lived on campus, and taking into account our other data that clearly shows a high level of overall involvement among our students overall, I’d suggest that we might have set up a situation where we have maintained the educational opportunities that contribute to individual development among our seniors, but we may be missing out on some of the benefits to a residential educational community that our senior class might provide if they lived on campus.

There are lots of reasons to suggest that we should be cautious in drawing too many conclusions from this particular data point.  For many of our seniors, they may be busy with off-campus internships, graduate school applications, or other involvements that emerge as they begin to prepare for life after college.  They could also be hosting off-campus parties that have varied effects – both good and bad – on our campus community.  And given the long history of seniors living off campus, I’ll bet that there are a certain set of beliefs or mythologies about one’s senior year that are deeply embedded into the student culture.

Yet I’d ask that as we endeavor to create an integrated learning experience that is truly comprehensive and clearly distinctive in terms of preparing students for lives of financial independence, unintended discoveries, and a legacy of success, I hope we are willing to seriously consider all of the possible design elements that might make such an educational experience and environment possible.  And I hope that we are bravely able to keep a balance between the necessary elements of the culture we hope to foster with the developmental needs of our individual students.

Make it a good day,

Mark