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

 

 

 

Can We Talk About This?

UPDATE: Sometimes I screw up.  This is one of those times.  When I looked at this data and read the report, I misunderstood the meaning of the “attitudes toward integration of religion and spirituality in higher education” scores.  So below I stated, “On average, Augustana students believe that religion and spirituality should be a comparably less integral part of college life than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.” In actuality, our students reported the opposite.  It turns out the the questions in this scale are framed in the negative and thus the scores need to be reversed in order to understand them properly.  One could argue that the report isn’t quite clear on how to interpret this scale . . . but I still missed it.  The rest of this blog post stands and I think is still worth the pixels on the screen.  My apologies.  Mark

___________________________________________

At one time or another, I’ll bet you’ve heard the old advice about discussing religion or politics. As I remember it, it boils down to one word: don’t.  These days you only need to turn to CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News to see what can happen when folks go down that road.  Interestingly, these flailing pundits demonstrate perfectly why we should care so much about developing our students’ ability to effectively and civilly converse about personal beliefs, especially when talking to someone with whom they don’t agree.  Because no one can make where they live a better place if they can’t interact across all manner of difference to solve complicated problems and live better together.

The commitment to developing this attribute in our students is one of the core motivations of those who participate in the Interfaith Understanding student group, the Honest Conversation series, and Salon (among others).  Bringing disparate people together for the specific purpose of discussing conflicting personal beliefs can have a powerful impact on learning important skills like perspective-taking, suspending judgment, and reflecting instead of reacting.  Of course, it can also be uncomfortable, destabilizing, and just plain hard.  But that is exactly what good educating is – precisely because learning so often comes through stretching students beyond what is safe and familiar.

Last year Augustana participated in a national survey to better understand the impact of our efforts to foster a community where these conversations can happen.  The survey – the Campus Religious and Spirituality Climate Survey (CRSCS) assess three dimensions of a campus environment that might influence a religious and spiritual climate of tolerance, interaction, and impact.

  1. The structural worldview diversity: Perceptions of the proportional representation of various religious and non-religious groups on campus.
  2. The psychological climate: Perceptions and attitudes between and among different worldview groups.
  3. The behavioral climate: Formal and informal interactions among students of different worldviews.

We surveyed sophomores and juniors in March and April of 2013.  Although our response rate wasn’t as high as we would have liked (124 useable responses), we got enough data to make some inferences about our students’ experiences in this area and how those experiences might set up our next efforts to strengthen this aspect of student learning.

The crux of the results suggest:

  • On average, Augustana students perceive their campus community to be comparably more homogenous than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, Augustana students are comparably more accepting and express more appreciative views of students from alternate faith or belief systems (e.g., Muslim or agnostic students) than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, our students perceive there to be less conflict or separation between students from differing faith systems and worldviews on this campus than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, Augustana students have had challenging or stimulating experiences with students from different worldviews more often and believe that their college experience has altered their religious or spiritual worldview more substantially than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, Augustana students believe that religion and spirituality should be a comparably less integral part of college life than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.

Overall, Augustana students’ appear to be more interfaith literate and appreciative of other worldviews and belief systems than students at the other participant institutions during 2012-13.  This seems to be reflected in both the degree to which students appear to be accepting of other faith or worldview groups and the degree to which they perceive the climate to be less divided.  Moreover, Augustana students seem to perceive a greater benefit from their interactions across faith and worldview differences than students at other participating institutions.  Taken together, these findings suggest that we are making progress toward 1) creating an environment conducive to a positive college experience for students of all faiths or worldviews and 2) achieving the college-wide learning outcomes regarding intercultural competence.

Interestingly, despite the students’ own comparably more positive experiences and educational growth as a result of interfaith encounters, they seem reticent to believe that their college experience should include more integration of religious and spiritual issues.  Even in the context of attending a private, church-affiliated liberal arts college, Augustana students seem to be more likely to think that the religious and spiritual worldview sphere should be relegated to a private domain and not brought into the classroom or the public sphere.

The combination of these findings suggests to me that the groundwork may be in place for us to more explicitly take ownership of interfaith literacy as a critical element of intercultural competence and make it more a part of the mainstream learning experience.  This groundwork seems to be in place not because the data suggests that students are asking for a heightened emphasis on interfaith literacy, but because we have data to show students that their experiences have impacted their own growth.  In my mind, this might be one way of shifting their own engagement in this conversation – by showing them that they have already benefitted from the thing that they think they shouldn’t do.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Rankings, Schmankings

Since the US News & World Report rankings came out last week, a number of people have asked me, “What do you make of this stuff?”  To be frank, my attitude toward college rankings in general swings from mild amusement to seething frustration.  Thankfully, I’m not alone in this opinion – Slate just published a particularly humorous dig at the whole rankings hubbub.  Nonetheless, I thought it might be helpful to share a couple of observations from this year’s ranking of Augustana College by digging a little deeper into the mean and method behind this particular “madness.”

  1. US News & World Report continues to focus almost entirely on inputs and perception instead of outcomes.  So factors like students’ incoming ACT/SAT scores, the proportion of applications accepted for admission, several measures of financial resources, and the opinion of other college presidents largely determine the final rankings.  As a result, the wealthiest colleges tend to sit atop the rankings.  US News  has doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on this approach, so don’t expect it to change any time soon.
  2. Even though the ranking number is the one that everyone seems to pay attention to, all of the ranks are derived from an absolute score that ranges from 0 to 100.  With more than 250 colleges to rank in our category of national liberal arts colleges, you can imagine that there are a lot of ties.  This year, Augustana’s absolute score (54) is exactly the same as it was last year.  Despite the absence of change, our rank dropped from 97 last year to 100 this year on the list.
  3. Moreover, we sit within a cluster of 21 other colleges that scored within two points on either side of our absolute score (56-52).  These schools range in ranking from 94 to 110.  It’s a good group of colleges with several names that you’d recognize as institutions with which we often compare ourselves.  And it makes sense to think that we would share a lot of similarities with some of these schools, after all we’ve been sitting within spitting distance of each other for almost 30 years.

But since the US News rankings were first conceived, a lot has changed.  We have fundamentally altered the way that we assess ourselves, shifting from determining our self-worth based on the inputs that US News uses to assessing our educational effectiveness based upon the results or outcomes of an Augustana education.  So is there anything from the US News rankings that might be worth noting?

There is one interesting tidbit that isn’t listed on the US News web site but is available to institutions upon request.  US News creates rank scores for each of the eight sub-categories (peer assessment, financial resources, graduation and retention, student selectivity, faculty resources, alumni giving, graduation rate performance, and high school counselor opinion) that they combine to create a total score.  Most (6 out of 8) sub-category rankings fall between 80 and 134.  Our financial resources rank (160) is a bit lower than the rest.  All this, especially our comparatively lower financial resource rank, makes the final sub-category ranking all that much more interesting and, dare I say, impressive.

The one sub-category left is called Graduation Rate Performance.  This sub-category recognizes any potential difference between a schools’ predicted graduation rate (based on the characteristics of the incoming students and the financial where-with-all of the institution) and the actual graduation rate in a particular year.  The larger the positive gap between the predicted and actual graduation rate, the higher the rank score – reflecting the degree to which the institution is making the most of its capacities to educate and graduate its students.

  • What was our predicted graduation rate?    67%
  • What was our actual graduation rate?          78%

Augustana’s graduation rate performance rank this year is 19.  In other words, we took a decent, albeit imperfect, group of about 640 students and graduated about 70 more of them than would be expected given the average incoming academic preparation and family financial status of the group.

That seems to be worth celebrating.

Is there anything else worth noting in the US News rankings?  Not really.

Make it a good day,

Mark

The Counter-Intuitive Predictors of Students’ Sense of Belonging on Campus

One of the main reasons we encourage freshmen to find and join student groups that fit their interests is because we believe that connecting freshmen to other students based on a common interest helps speed the acclimation process and leads to a stronger sense of belonging on campus.  After all, the dominant theories in the study of college students assert that student involvement in campus life matters for a host of important reasons and lead to higher rates of persistence and learning.

One way to track our student involvement in campus life is to gather information about our students’ participation patterns in co-curricular activities.  Thus, we included several questions in the new end-of-the-first-year survey that ask about the degree to which freshmen found student groups or clubs that fit their interests and whether they participated in a variety of activities such as greek organizations, intercollegiate athletics, music ensembles, or any other student club or organization.

One assumption we make about involvement’s impact on persistence and learning is that the driving factor exists simply in the act of becoming and staying involved.  In other words, we often don’t think so much about the nature of that involvement (i.e., the nature of the interactions and experiences that occur as a result of that involvement) as we do about the mere existence or absence of it.  If you think you smell a hint of foreshadowing here . . . breathe deeply (sorry for the mixed metaphor!).

When we analyzed the data we collected from our freshmen last spring, we tested these two potentially competing hypotheses.  Essentially, was a students’ sense of belonging on campus primarily impacted by the existence of involvement or by the nature of that involvement?  The results might surprise you (cue more ominous foreshadowing music).

Of all the questions asking about the existence of involvement (whether they participated in athletics, music groups, student clubs, greek organizations, and the degree to which they found student groups that fit their interests), the only one that produced a statistically significant positive effect on our students’ sense of belonging was athletic participation.

The rest of the measures of the existence of involvement . . . nothing, nada, zippo.

However, several questions that asked about the nature of students’ interaction with others on campus – an unavoidable byproduct of involvement – produced statistically significant effects even after taking into account the existence of student involvement in all of the ways assessed above.

  • My out-of-class experiences have helped me develop a deeper understanding of how I relate to others.
  • About how often have you had serious conversations with students from a different race/ethnicity, economic background, religious beliefs, or political opinions than your own?

Interestingly, several questions that asked about students’ curricular experiences also impacted students’ sense of belonging on campus.

  • In your courses, how often were you asked to examine the strengths and weaknesses of your own views on a topic or issue?
  • How often did faculty ask you to apply your learning to address societal problems or issues?

There appears to me to be some possibly important overlap between these two sets of questions.  All four of these questions ask about experiences that require empathy, suspending judgement, and learning to see issues through a perspective other than one’s own.  I wonder if these kinds of experiences may actually perpetuate a deeper, more meaningful sense of belonging and fit.  Simply finding a group of people who already share one’s interests suggests that the individual looking to fit in doesn’t need to do anything to make the fit happen.  As a result, they don’t have to commit to grow or change.  I suspect this allows them to maintain something of an emotional escape hatch (e.g., “if this doesn’t work out, so what”).  But if fitting in necessitates a measure of empathy, suspension of judgement, and perspective-taking, I wonder if these behaviors also increase the likelihood of commitment, thereby producing a deeper sense of belonging and fit.

The fact that an increase in any of these four experiences paralleled an increase in a student’s sense of belonging on campus suggests to me that the nature of a student’s involvement may be more important than the mere existence of it.  Thus, encouraging someone to find and join a student group that shares similar interests, while it might be beneficial on some level, may not necessarily be enough to develop a deeper sense of belonging on campus.  Instead, it appears that interactions that force students to encounter and interact across some dimension of difference toward a successful conclusion can play a critical part in our students’ capacity for fitting in at Augustana College.  Like many of the other issues we are thinking about as we focus more precisely on student learning, when we talk about maximizing student involvement, let’s remember to ask ourselves, “To what end?  What do we want our students to learn and how do we want them to grow as a result of this experience?”

Make it a good day,

Mark

Assessing our students’ classroom exposure to integrative learning

Sometimes our students surprise me.  Over the last year, I’ve noticed how many of them really believe in the advantages of a liberal arts education.  For some, their experience at Augustana opened their eyes to the benefits of the liberal arts, but many of them seem to have chosen Augustana because of its liberal arts mission. Even when I’ve been suspicious that these students were just repeating the sales pitch they heard on their campus visit, I’ve been impressed with how often they have emphatically argued the merits of making connections between ideas and disciplines to be liberally educated and better prepared for life after college.

So where do our students get this belief in a liberal arts education?  Is it an artifact of their college search?  Does it just magically happen?  Or is it because they experience the benefits of making connections between disciplines in their course work?  It seems to me that the answer to this question might be particularly helpful, since it would give us another clue into how we can build a truly comprehensive learning experience and help more students make the most of their Augustana career.

One question on the senior survey might give us a glimpse of an answer.  In each of the last two years, we’ve asked graduating seniors, “In your non-major courses, about how often were you asked to put together ideas or concepts from different courses when completing assignments or during class discussions?”  They were given five response options that include “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” “often,” or “very often.”  For the purposes of quantitative analysis, we code these responses in order from 1 to 5.

Over the last two years, students’ have responded with a resounding “sometimes.”  The average response in 2012 was 3.25, while in 2013 it was 3.17.  Furthermore, the standard deviations from each year (a measure of the degree to which the responses are spread across the range of options versus concentrated around the average score) were fairly narrow (.81 and .85) and almost identical.

So what should we make of these data?  Do they suggest some dissonance between what we claim we do and what actually happens in our non-major classes?  Maybe only certain students are more likely to have this experience?  Or are these mean scores right where they should be?

In looking deeper into this data, it appears that there aren’t a lot of clear patterns across major types.  And I suppose it doesn’t make sense that there should be such patterns because students’ non-major courses would be partially similar no matter the major and partially all over the place based on their own interests.  Frankly, this is an item where I don’t think looking at the average score tells the whole story.  If we think about the kind of educational experience that we claim students will get from us, it seems that we would want students to say that they were asked to put together ideas from different disciplines regularly.  Yet I don’t think it’s realistic to think that they should respond “very often.”  No matter whether that translates into a “sometimes” or an “often” for a given student as they fill out this survey, my point is that I think we could be satisfied with an average score halfway between 3 and 4.  More importantly, I don’t think we want any students to say “never” or ” rarely.”  After looking at how the students’ responses were distributed across the range of response options, we can take pride in the fact that the vast majority of students indicated “sometimes,” “often,” or “very often.”  Unfortunately, in both of the last two graduating classes, about 80 students didn’t meet that threshold.

I don’t think we can realistically expect that a year where no student selects “rarely” or “never” to this question.  However, I do think that we can intentionally infuse integrating cross-disciplinary perspectives into our work – as clearly many of you do already.  New learning becomes real and has a better chance of becoming permanent when the learner can attach it to something that they already know.  It could be another discipline, a current event, or a common experience.  In the humanities, great literature often comes alive for students when they realize that people have been wrestling with the same difficult questions for hundreds of years.  In the sciences, concepts and the implications of natural laws come alive when students see how these abstract realities shape the way we live and the choices we make.

Clearly, we are doing a lot of things right at Augustana College.  We have more than ample evidence to prove it.  But we also know that we can strive to be even better.  One way to do that is by intentionally finding ways to connect what students are learning in your class to what they have already learned elsewhere.  This way we have a better chance of making the students’ learning “take” and becoming something that permanently shapes the person they become.

Make it a good day,

Mark

An Old Truth that Stands the Test of Time

Every year about this time, it seems as if the sleepy grounds on which we walk all summer magically spawn a new class of students, and within a few days they are planted in our classrooms, staring at us from well-worn desks with looks ranging from bright-eyed excitement to bleary-eyed befuddlement. But no matter the particular mix of personalities we find in our classes on the first day of the fall term, we all throw ourselves into the messy work of educating, trying to help all students strive to learn, find their niche, and embrace their college learning experience.

So what is the mysterious formula that lights the fire for student success?  On the one hand, we all know enough to know that such an overly simplistic question is a bit naive. Educating is jagged and salty business.  There is no magic elixir.  Anyone who claims otherwise is a certifiable charlatan.  Instead, the way to think about influencing success is to focus on likelihoods. Thus the questions we ask should be about what we can do to set in motion the right combination of experiences and what we can do to cultivate the right responses to those experiences so that all students – no matter their unique characteristics or predispositions – are most likely to take their fate into their own hands, succeed, stay, and ultimately graduate.

Last year we introduced a survey to freshmen at the end of their first year that was in part intended to help us identify the kind of experiences that might increase the likelihood of first year success.  While it was modeled after the senior survey, we introduced a number of new questions that specifically focused on experiences unique to freshmen (e.g., LSFY, first-year advising, life in the residence halls).  We also asked several outcome questions, one of which was, “If you could relive your college decision, would you choose Augustana again?”

I want to share with you two student experience questions that turned out to be statistically significant predictors of students’ saying that they would “definitely” choose Augustana again – one relatively effective proxy for determining a student’s success in college. And since the findings I’m going to share take into account their pre-college academic preparation, gender, race/ethnicity, and family financial status, these findings likely apply regardless of differences in a few basic but important demographic characteristics.

The two questions that emerged as statistically significant predictors were:

  1. “How often did your faculty emphasize setting high expectations for your own learning and growth?” (never, rarely, sometimes, often, very often)
  2. “Faculty and staff at Augustana treated me like an individual.” (strongly disagree, disagree, neutral, agree, strongly agree)

What strikes me most about this finding is that it captures a fundamental truth in college impact research: the principle of challenge and support.  An educational endeavor can’t maximize learning and success unless it creates an environment that a) challenges students to push themselves beyond marginal, rudimentary gains, and b) supports their affective well-being as they take the risk of pushing themselves so that they can continue to learn and grow in the face of difficulty, or even the occasional failure. The findings from our own data suggest that our freshmen who said that they would “definitely” choose Augustana again were also students who said that faculty often (or very often) emphasized setting high expectations for their own learning and growth AND agreed (or strongly agreed) that faculty and staff at Augustana treated them like an individual.

There are a myriad of ways to concretely emphasize to students the importance of setting high expectations for themselves while at the same time treating them like an individual. In my few interactions with freshmen during the last several days of Fall Connection, I’ve been struck by the degree to which they want to know what they can do to succeed. Yet in many cases, they don’t know the questions that would uncover the information they need.  I suspect that we would all go a long way toward helping students discover those questions, as well as the answers to them, if we intentionally frame our interactions with students to communicate an aspiration to challenge within a cradle of support.  Stated a different way, this means that we specifically instill in students our belief in their ability to succeed even as we exhort them to strive for a high bar.

Deep and meaningful learning is risky.  If your students trust you to be their learning guide, they will work harder than you – or they – thought they could.  And that will substantially increase their – and our – likelihood of success.

Good luck with your first week of the 2013-14 Fall Term.

Make it a good day,

Mark