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

 

“I love it when a plan comes together.”

John ‘Hannibal’ Smith, The A-Team

When Augustana implemented Augie Choice several years ago, the goal was fairly straightforward – increase the proportion of students who participate in study abroad, internships, or undergraduate research.  Not surprisingly, Augie Choice worked.  The proportion of our students who participate in one of those three ventures has increased dramatically. Also not surprisingly, the majority of the students using Augie Choice have put those funds toward studying abroad.

But the measure by which we evaluate Augie Choice shouldn’t be restricted to mere increases in participation.  There might be other factors, like the increasingly emphatic public rhetoric about the best ways for students to prepare for a competitive job market, that are driving participation in experiential learning opportunities.  Instead, the ideal way to evaluate the effectiveness of Augie Choice is to examine the degree to which it has driven an increase in participation among students who would not have participated otherwise.  Obviously, in actuality this is sort of impossible (stats people call this the problem of the counterfactual – most of the rest of us call it the allure of the alternate universe), so the next best way to get at this question is to look at participation patterns among those who historically did not participate and see if these numbers have changed since the implementation of Augie Choice.

In the case of study abroad, one historically under-represented population is students who come from lower-income backgrounds.  So as a part of our recent program review of international programs, Allen Bertsche and I looked at several years of study abroad participation data to see if the proportion of low-income students studying abroad had increased significantly since Augie Choice was implemented.

Here are the actual numbers.  The percentages (in parentheses) are the proportion of all study abroad participants in the corresponding year.

Year Pell Recipients Gov’t Subsidized Loan Recipients Total Study Abroad Participants
Before Augie Choice
2009-10

16 (5.6%)

76 (26.4%)

288

After Augie Choice
2011-12

32 (10.8%)

105 (35.4%)

297

2012-13

49 (15.8%)

122 (39.4%)

310

As you can see, Augie Choice seems to have contributed to a substantial increase in study abroad participation rates among lower income students.  Between 2009/10 and 2012/13, the proportion of study abroad participants from the lowest income group (Pell qualifiers) nearly tripled, and the proportion of government subsidized loan qualifiers jumped by about 50%.

Pretty cool, eh?

Of course there are many more questions to pose regarding Augie Choice.  For example, since we know that participation doesn’t automatically produce learning, what exactly are we doing to make sure that students make substantive meaning out of their experiences?  What are we doing to ensure that they integrate that meaning into their continued growth and development?

This is a deeply complicated question – albeit not beyond our capability.  As we have done with other complex initiatives like re-envisioning general education and introducing senior inquiry, we have already proven our ability to grapple with complicated challenges and produce results that demonstrably improve student learning.  But in order to make the most out of these experiential learning opportunities, we had to create a mechanism that spurred all students to participate.  Augie Choice did that.  Well done, everybody.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Should our students’ confidence in their post-graduate plans vary?

One particularly useful question from our senior survey asks students to respond to the statement, “I am certain that my post-graduate plans are a good fit for who I am and where I want my life to go.”  Students have the choice of five options from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree,” and for analytical purposes those five options are assigned scores from 1 to 5.  The average score for the 2012 senior class was 4.06, which roughly translates to the response option “agree.”  On first glance, that seems pretty good.

But as with any examination of a large dataset, an overall average score can be deceptive.  For example, all the students’ responses could have been clustered between 4.00 and 4.10 – suggesting that no matter the major or the individual’s post-graduate plan (grad school, work, volunteer circus clown, etc.), all of our students were pretty certain that their plans for life after college were a good fit.  However, it is also possible that just under half the students chose “neutral” (scored as a 3) while just over half chose “strongly agree” (scored as a 5) – suggesting a troubling disparity between two groups of Augustana students.

So last week we began to dig deeper into the data beneath that overall score of 4.06.  First, we divided the responses based upon whether the student intended to go to grad school or intended to go directly into the workforce.  Then, we looked at those two groups across seven categories of majors – humanities, social sciences, biological sciences, physical sciences, fine arts, business, and education.

It turns out that our overall average masks a substantial gap between students who intend to go to grad school and students who intend to go into the job market.  For students going to grad school (161), their certainty of post-graduate plan fit was 4.49.  For students going into the workforce (352), their certainty of post-graduate plan fit was 3.97.

Interestingly, this gap largely repeats itself across all of the major categories, although the gap among biological science students was a little larger and the gaps among physical science and business students was a little smaller.  I’ve put all of that data into the table below.

Student Group

Going to Grad School (# of students)

Going to Work (# of students)

Overall

4.49

(161)

3.97

(352)

Humanities

4.35

(20)

3.78

(56)

Social Sciences

4.52

(27)

3.95

(56)

Biological Sciences

4.56

(87)

3.84

(62)

Physical Sciences

4.42

(12)

4.17

(24)

Business

4.33

(12)

3.99

(87)

Education

0.00

(0)

4.29

(55)

Fine Arts

4.00

(3)

3.50

(12)

So what should we take from it?  First of all, I’d suggest that it’s entirely realistic to expect students going to grad school to be more certain of their post-graduate plan fit.  After all, they seem to know what they want to do enough to know that additional and specifically focused schooling is necessary.  Moreover, in many cases they probably know the exact career they plan to pursue and have long since investigated the path required to get there.  They also possess the intellectual capabilities to get to a point where their career plan has been validated by their grad school acceptance letter – an additional affirmation that they are on the right path.

Second, although we need to be cautious about making too much of some of these subgroup averages (for example, the mean score of 0.00 for education majors intending to go directly to graduate school is explained by the fact that no education majors intended to go to grad school), we should remember that this dataset includes responses from virtually all of our 2012 graduates.  As such, these scores accurately represent the experiences of an entire class of seniors.

I think these numbers can inform our efforts to improve the degree to which we set up our students to succeed after college.  Students who intended to go into the workforce and majored in the fine arts (3.50) and the humanities (3.78) indicated the lowest levels of career certainty.  By comparison, the highest levels of career certainty among those who intended to go into the workforce were education (4.29) and physical sciences (4.17) majors.  This gap is large enough to indicate that the difference between the two groups cannot be attributed to mere chance.  Some of you might suggest that the relatively low certainty among fine arts and humanities students shouldn’t be surprising given that these majors either don’t have direct links to particular professions or have been long associated with the stereotype of the “the starving artist.”  In both cases graduate school provides a clearer career path, and that likely explains the higher certainty for students from those majors going to grad school.

I fear that the students who need assistance with career planning early in the course of their major are the ones who are too often the least likely to get it.  These students are often in majors where faculty have little experience outside of academia and are therefore less likely to know as much about how to help a student translate the knowledge and skills developed in that major across a wide variety of career paths.  This seems like a perfect opportunity for faculty in the humanities and fine arts to partner with the CEC to lay down early guiding pathways for these students and to help correct the erroneous assumptions about the lack of career options available to students in these majors.

In addition, I’d suggest that this is not something that we should expect the faculty to solve by merely adding another class or some other one-off experience.  Although we can share some of this information with students through short presentations, this information translates best when it is repeatedly infused into many different experiences – both inside and outside of the classroom.  In the end, that is the epitome of the liberal arts; that we take the fullest advantage of the comprehensive learning environment to help students make connections across a wide range of educational contexts and disciplines.  In so doing, each of our students, no matter their life aspirations, are well prepared to succeed in life after college.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

“Treat us like freshmen or treat us like juniors; I don’t care. Just pick one.”

Two decades ago, Augustana College enrolled almost twice as many transfer students each year as we do now.  In a time when the total enrollment of the college was several hundred students fewer than today, this meant that a substantially larger proportion of Augustana students had already attended at least one other college before coming to our campus.  I don’t pretend to know all of the factors that altered our demographic make up since then, but over the last two decades our proportion of transfer students has dropped from about a fifth to just under a tenth of our total enrollment.

Despite investing more time and effort into recruiting transfer students over the last few years, this effort has proven to be a gnarly challenge.  To make matters worse, it’s been difficult to pinpoint any specific factor that would make it easier to meet our transfer enrollment goals.  So this winter we conducted a series of focus groups with current transfer students to find out more about their experience acclimating academically and socially.  Our hope was that the information we gathered might help us better serve transfer students and, in so doing, make it easier for us to recruit them.  As I’ve been reviewing our notes from those conversations, I thought I’d share one reoccurring meme that might help us improve the way we think about transfer students and, by extension, might increase our success in serving them as well as our ability to recruit them.

Since our student body is almost entirely traditional students coming directly from four years of high school, it’s deceptively easy to think of our entire student body as virtually homogeneous.  However, our transfer student population completely blows up that stereotype.  In our focus groups, we spoke with students ranging in age from 18 to the early 40s.  Some were married, others were single, and all came from different socio-economic backgrounds.  Furthermore, their academic preparation and ability ranged from the very strongest to seriously at-risk.  Some had earned an Associate’s Degree at a community college before coming to Augustana.  Others had transferred after attending a comparable four-year school for one year.  A few had transferred after attending a community college for less than two years.  Still others had transferred after several years of part-time enrollment.  In some cases this included several years of military service.  In short, our transfer students run the gamut – mirroring the diversity of postsecondary students nationwide.

On its face, this may not seem like a particularly earth-shattering finding.  However, the ramifications of the diversity of our transfer students’ pre-Augustana experience don’t seem to be reflected in our institutional practices.  Our curricular and co-curricular practices suggest that we conceptualize transfer students as a single group of homogeneous individuals – just like we (mostly correctly) conceive of freshmen.   As a result, we have developed curricular and co-curricular experiences that treat them as if they were developmentally and academically similar.  While our programming does hit the mark for some transfers, for most these programs often seem hollow and marginalizing.  Moreover, since most of this programming occurs within the first term or two of a transfer student’s arrival on campus, this marginalization begins at the outset.  And they don’t forget it, either.

Now I don’t think this means that we ought to design different pathways for each type of transfer student – that would be virtually impossible.  But I would suggest that our current system seems particularly narrow in its design – almost as if we made the assumption that all transfer students were the same when we put these programs in place.  Whether that was the case at one point or whether we just made an erroneous assumption, today we seem to miss the mark more often than we hit it.  I wonder if this in turn doesn’t communicate a message to prospective transfers that Augustana is not as welcoming a campus as we would like it to be.

I’ll be sharing the specifics of our findings with many of you over the coming months.  I’ve been intentionally vague in this post primarily because (1) I want us to reflect on the degree to which our own conceptions of transfer students may be derived from assumptions rather than fact, and (2) I didn’t want anyone to feel as if I was hanging them or the programs for which they are responsible out to dry.  Indeed, I was certainly one who had not thought through the implications of this diversity among our transfer students before holding these focus groups and hearing what these students had to say.

On the whole, our transfer students are happy with many of their experiences at Augustana.  But that doesn’t mean that we can’t also improve what we do to make the experience even better and, in the process, cultivate an environment that is more welcoming to future transfer students.  Because if national trends are any indication of the changing world of higher education, we will need to make sure that we don’t lose out on the growing number of transfer students just because we appear to assume that there is really only one type of transfer student.  I would humbly suggest that such thinking only reflects a glimmer of times long past.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Why We All Need to Fully Invest in Symposium Day

Last Tuesday we held our third Symposium Day – an event intended to bring faculty, staff, and students together, collectively dig deeper into a specific social issue, and through our actions live the values that we espouse as a communally-conscious liberal arts college.  Pulling off such a production is no easy feat, and those who organized and administered each Symposium Day deserve substantial credit for their efforts.  Furthermore, as a college community we should be generally proud of our first year of Symposium Days, since participation across the college ranged from respectable to truly impressive.  However, Symposium Day has also exposed the tendency among some of us to lean toward our personal inclinations rather than genuinely commit to a communal endeavor.  Some of us only participated sparingly, others skipped the events altogether, and a few – despite the vote of the faculty to schedule no classes on Symposium Day – stubbornly conducted their classes anyway.  And just in case you think I’m throwing stones from my own glass house, I humbly admit that I didn’t engage in the full spirit of Symposium Day to the degree that I should have, either.

I was reminded of why we chose to embark on this grand experiment that we have called Symposium Day while reviewing our recent Wabash National Study data that noted our students’ static attitudes toward civic engagement over their four years in college.  So I’d like to share our results on this particular outcome in the hope that it will bolster our commitment to making Symposium Day as educationally beneficial as possible.

The Wabash Study asked students a set of questions about their interest and willingness to engage in collective action for the good of the community at the beginning of the freshman year, the end of the freshman year, and the end of the senior year.  Augustana had 126 students who provided data at all three data collections points – enough for us to be confident about the degree to which these data might represent our overall student population.  Here are Augustana’s average scores (on a 5 point scale) at each data collection point in the study.

Beginning of Freshman Year (Fall, 2008)   –  2.69

End of Freshman Year (Spring, 2009)        -  2.67

End of Senior Year (Spring, 2012)             –  2.66

Essentially, the importance that our students place on civic engagement didn’t change.  Equally alarming, since the response options for each question were laid out on a five point scale (strongly disagree=1, disagree=2, neutral=3, agree=4, and strongly agree=5), our students’ average score at each point in their Augustana career translates to just south of a robust “meh!” – not exactly the marker of graduates who, as our college mission statement describes, would be prepared for a “rewarding life of leadership and service in a diverse and changing world.”

So, despite our assertion that Augustana students develop a deeper awareness of and interest in making a difference in their communities, and despite our emphasis on volunteering and a marked increase in service-learning courses in recent years, these findings suggest that our students depart much as they enter – at best somewhat ambivalent about the importance of civic engagement.

This brings me back to the potential for Symposium Day to help us make good on our promise to prospective students and parents regarding civic engagement.  Each of the educational outcomes that we try to develop in our students encompasses both cognitive and affective dimensions.  For example, a deeper commitment to civic engagement requires a strengthened sense of self and an increasingly nuanced understanding of the interconnectedness of our world.  Furthermore, students’ ability to use these skills in real-world contexts depends upon the extent to which we teach them to apply theories, ideals, and information in various real-world situations.  Symposium Day as a re-occurring program – a program that students should experience twelve times during their four years at Augustana – sets up the potential for us to influence student growth along multiple dimensions and apply this development repeatedly in a variety of real-world contexts.  In order to do that, experiences designed for freshmen, sophomores, juniors, and seniors need to be developmentally appropriate, with each subsequent Symposium Day experience building on the last.  In addition, Symposium Day provides a key launching mechanism for students to take things they’ve learned in their courses and put them into action to better understand and address real world issues.  So students need to take least one course each term that somehow connects with the focus of that term’s Symposium Day in a way that prepares them to make the most of the experience and make meaning of it afterward.

For all of that to happen, students need to hear the same message everywhere they turn – that Symposium Day is a critical part of the Augustana learning experience.  It’s not a day off, intellectually or actually, and mere attendance shouldn’t be mistaken for authentic participation. In the end, we – faculty, administrators, and staff – have to exemplify the value of communal engagement and the importance of our impact on our local community.   That might mean adapting our courses to incorporate the theme of Symposium Day, even if this means a little extra prep work each year.  I readily admit that this might go against some of our longstanding notions of autonomy in academia.  But I hope we would all be willing to give up a little autonomy in order to foster the kind of student learning that we have long claimed to result from an Augustana education.  Symposium Day is a wonderful opportunity for us to create a community of more fully engaged citizens.  It would be a shame for us to miss that chance, especially when we do so many other things that appear to hit an educational home run.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Can we actually increase students’ intrinsic motivation in the first year?

We’d all love to believe that our students develop a love of learning “for learning’s sake.”  But more often than not we find ourselves dealing with students who seem motivated to learn only because of some combination of potential future rewards and/or the threat of penalties or punishment.  Some have lamented that the impact of extrinsic motivators in the primary and secondary educational system (NCLB, etc.) has so thoroughly turned students’ reasoning for learning into a return-on-investment equation that the die is cast long before they enter college.  Yet prior studies of changes in motivational orientation during college suggest that students’ orientation toward intrinsic motivation does increase between the freshman and senior years.  The question I’d want to know is whether there is anything we can do to influence the development of intrinsic motivation or if it is simply a function of maturity over time?

As a college committed to a liberal arts philosophy and the belief that our students are better off if their actions are spurred by intrinsic motivators, I think we’d want to know which particular experiences fuel the development of intrinsic motivation.  So in the fall of 2011 we began a four-year longitudinal study of the college experiences that impact intrinsic motivation among Augustana students.  During freshman orientation we asked students to complete a survey of motivational orientations.  In the spring of 2012, LSFY 103 instructors allowed us to survey freshmen again with the same motivational orientations measure.  In addition, we included a survey of about 25 questions taken from NSSE or the Wabash National Study that we already knew had been linked to important educational growth on a variety of outcomes.

Interestingly, we found a number of predictors of an increase in intrinsic motivation.  Some of them would be as you’d expect, particularly students’ aspirations to pursue graduate school after college.  These findings were important to account for in our analysis because we wanted to isolate the potential effect of first-year experiences . . . if we in fact found any.

Happily, we found two student experiences that appeared to increase students’ intrinsic motivational orientation.  The most prominent experience turned out to be about student-faculty interaction.  Students who said that their interactions with faculty shaped their intellectual and personal development tended to also show an increase in intrinsic motivation.  The second experience that produced a statistically significant effect was the degree to which students’ have informal interactions with people who are different from themselves.  These informal interactions primarily took the form of serious conversations outside of class.

Both of these findings are worth considering in more detail.  Based on our recent Wabash National Study data, while we excel in the quality of our student-faculty interaction during the senior year, our freshmen don’t report quite the same level of quality.  Though this might be attributable to all sorts of circumstances unique to the freshman year, I think it’s worth looking for ways to ensure that our freshmen are engaged in substantive conversations with faculty.  And this student experience is valuable for many reasons above and beyond positively influencing intrinsic motivation.

The impact of informal diverse interactions is also worth considering.  First, in addition to so many other findings on college students, this particular result reiterates the degree to which out-of-class experiences can influence the development of outcomes that are vital to academic success.  From the standpoint of faculty, this finding should further encourage us to develop a deeper understanding of our students’ out-of-class experiences and the way in which those experiences could be integrated with the curricular experience.  This will makes us better advisers, teachers, and mentors to students.

For student affairs professionals, this finding emphasizes the degree to which the impact of student affairs staff can and should be an educational one.  Increasing the degree to which students engage in diverse interactions is by no means impossible, but it surely takes intentionality to (1) expand students’ notion of difference beyond merely gender and skin color, and (2) encourage, cajole, coerce, or even require students to participate in activities that foster, or even directly create, these kinds of interactions.

Cultivating a general level of co-curricular involvement is not enough, for students left to their own devices tend to connect with others who are just like them – there is an understandable comfort in the familiar.  Cultivating a robust environment of diverse interactions requires that we stretch our students, pushing them beyond the familiar.  In order for students to allow themselves to be stretched, we have to think carefully about designing ideal environments for learning that appropriately balance challenge and support as we push them to expand their horizons and deepen their understanding of difference.

We are an institution that has proven its ability to improve by following the data and using that evidence make us better at what we do.  Finding ways to encourage quality student-faculty interaction and informal diverse interactions will help us continue to embody that trait.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Lest we rest on our laurels . . .

Last week I noted an important data point from our recently completed participation in the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education (WNS) that suggested an increase in our seniors’ level of academic challenge.  This finding was particularly gratifying because when we instituted Senior Inquiry we had hoped that it would help us maintain the increased academic challenge that we had infused into our freshmen year through the AGES curriculum several years before.  Our 2009 NSSE data had shown a marked increase since 2006 in the academic challenge benchmark among freshman, but the parallel measure among seniors showed no change, suggesting that we might be taking our foot off of the academic gas pedal after the freshman year. This new WNS data provided evidence that we are indeed making progress toward a sustained level of academic rigor across our students’ four years.

But as with all good assessment data, the WNS data provides additional nuances that can help us continue to improve what we do even as we might (and should) celebrate our successes.  So I’d like to introduce two other data points from the WNS regarding academic challenge and student learning, consider them in the context of optimizing faculty work/life balance, and see if there might be something here worth thinking about.

College impact researchers have found that when students are (1) challenged to push their intellectual capacities through substantive assignments and (2) supported in that process with encouragement, direction, and precise and timely feedback, student are more likely to maximize their learning and growth.  In the WNS, two of the scales that address important aspects of challenge measure (a) the frequency of higher-order exams and assignments and (b) the degree to which faculty communicate and maintain high expectations for student performance.  Likewise, two other scales capture crucial aspects of support by assessment (a) the quality of students’ non-classroom interaction with faculty and (b) the frequency of prompt feedback on assignments and performance.

The two tables below report our students’ scores on the two challenge metrics and the two support metrics at the end of the first year and compare those scores to the average scores from the other similar small colleges in the WNS.  The asterisks indicate where the difference score is statistically significant (in other words, the “+” or “-” sign doesn’t necessarily mean anything by itself).

2009 Spring – Challenge Metrics

Augustana

Comparisons Institutions

Difference Score

Frequency of higher-order exams and assignments

71.2

68.8

+2.3 *

Challenging classes and high faculty expectations

69.3

66.8

+2.5 *

2009 Spring – Support Metrics

Augustana

Comparisons Institutions

Difference Score

Quality of non-classroom interaction with faculty

66.7

67.2

-0.5

Prompt feedback

61.7

60.9

+0.8

Essentially, this data suggests that in comparison to the other participant institutions in the WNS, we challenge our students during the first year a bit more while we support them at levels similar to other small colleges.

Now, look at what happens to these metrics by the end of our students’ senior year.  Again, remember the function of the asterisks in these tables.

2012 Spring – Challenge Metrics

Augustana

Comparisons Institutions

Difference Score

Frequency of higher-order exams and assignments

72.8

75.1

-2.3

Challenging classes and high faculty expectations

71.5

72.5

-1.0

2012 Spring – Support Metrics

Augustana

Comparisons Institutions

Difference Score

Quality of non-classroom interaction with faculty

83.4

77.8

+5.6 *

Prompt feedback

71.1

67.6

+3.5 *

Interestingly, the pattern in the fourth year data is reversed.  By the end of the senior year we appear to challenge our students at levels similar to the other institutions while supporting our students at levels that are significantly higher (statistically) than the other small colleges in the WNS dataset.

So what should we make of this?  I’ve got a couple of thoughts, although I’d love to hear what strikes you (if anything) about these data points.

First, it is worth parsing some of the aspects of academic challenge that impact learning.  The academic challenge measure I described last week asks questions about the number of assignments and the amount of time spent on assignments.  Obviously, it’s tough to push students to learn if they aren’t being asked to put in the time and regularly produce substantial work.  However, the degree to which any workload can effectively impact learning is powerfully influenced by how much of the work requires complex, higher-order thinking (as opposed to simple memorization and regurgitation) and how high faculty set and communicate their expectations of quality.  Otherwise, time on task often devolves into mind-numbing busy work, and there isn’t a more effective strangler of student motivation  than the perception that homework is nothing more than a black hole of directionless wheel-spinning.  Our WNS data suggests that among first year students we’ve ramped up both the amount of work expected AND the complexity of the assignments and faculty expectations (and therefore the educational potential).  However, it appears that while we’ve increased the amount of work expected of our seniors, we haven’t necessarily matched that increase with a similarly expanded expectation of educational complexity.  I suspect that we might be able to improve on our already impressive learning gains if we could find ways to distinguish the nature of our seniors’ academic challenge in a manner similar to what seems apparent in our freshman data.

Conversely, the inverse pattern of change in student support for learning between the first and fourth year simultaneously suggests reasons to celebrate and opportunities to improve.  We have ample evidence that the quality of our support for students in their latter years plays a pivotal role in their development.  However, as we examine ways to increase the success of first year students ever higher (and thereby increase our retention rates), it seems that we might benefit from considering ways to increase student support in the first year to match the level of challenge that we’ve already attained.  Although it would be nice to find a singular solution (the discussion of a Center for Student Success as well as the new mechanism for math placement and remediation may well make a profound impact), I suspect that we might find additional ways to improve by further examining the clarity and uniformity of the LSFY experience and the partnership between the curricular and co-curricular experiences during the first year.

Lastly, I wonder if taken together these findings might provide an insight into a way that we might improve our faculty work/life balance even as we maintain – or even increase – student learning.  Right now our balancing of challenge and support seems to tip toward challenge in the first year and support in the fourth year.  I wonder whether there might be an opportunity to adjust this balance slightly by adding mechanisms for support in the first year and challenge in the fourth year.  In so doing, I wonder if we might find that leaning just a bit less on student-faculty interaction for our upperclass students might allow some of our work to be not quite so time intensive.

At present, it is clear that our efforts are working – but they are clearly time intensive and come at a cost.  I am in no way suggesting that we should somehow become more cold or unfeeling toward our students.  However, as I see the burden of our efforts take its toll again during the spring term, I sincerely wonder if there are ways to reduce the amount of time we spend burning the candle at both ends.  It seems to me that caring for our students shouldn’t necessitate killing ourselves to do so.

I think we owe it to our students and ourselves to at least consider this possibility.

Make it a good day.

Mark

 

Applied Learning Opportunities and Perceptions of Worth

In 2007 the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) published College Learning for the New Global Century to launch the Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative.  This document asserted a new way of conceptualizing the primary learning outcomes of a college education, focusing on four categories of transferable knowledge, skills, and dispositions:

  • Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World
  • Intellectual and Practical Skills
  • Personal and Social Responsibility
  • Integrative Learning

It wasn’t as if the shift from a focus on content knowledge acquisition to an emphasis on transferable skills and dispositions was a brand new idea.  But the public nature of this assertion from one of, if not the, major association of colleges and universities made a powerful statement to postsecondary institutions of all kinds that the cafeteria-style of content acquisition that had dominated most college curricula was no longer sufficient in preparing students to enter post-graduate life.

Throughout College Learning for the New Global Century, AAC&U urged colleges and universities to find ways for students to apply their learning in experiential settings.  They repeatedly cited the substantial body of research supporting the educational importance of application for deep and transformative learning.

At Augustana we’ve put a high value on these kinds of experiences, and our survey of seniors last spring directly asked about the degree to which students’ out-of-class experiences helped them connect what they learned in the classroom with real-life events.

Our seniors’ responses looked like this.

Strongly Disagree 2 0%
Disagree 13 3%
Neutral 77 15%
Agree 271 53%
Strongly Agree 141 28%

It is certainly heartening to see that more than 80% of our seniors indicated “agree” or “strongly agree.”  Moreover, this data confirms that many of the experiential opportunities that we provide for our students seem to be functioning in an educational capacity rather than simply serving as a respite from academic pursuits.  Analyses of other data from our participation in the Wabash National Study demonstrates that our students who engage in applied learning experiences make greater gains on a variety of learning outcomes than our students who do not.

But I want to point out another side of this finding that I think is worth considering.  I think that this data may be instructive as many of us – faculty, staff, administrators, and board members – continually try to make the case to prospective students and their parents that an Augustana education is worth the price they are asked to pay.  Moreover, not only does this data point help us focus our assertion that Augustana provides an education that is worth the cost, but I believe it should point us toward the way we need to think about the important yet slippery (and sometimes even a little bit uncomfortable) concept of “value proposition.”

At the end of the summer we analyzed our senior survey data to see if we could identify specific student experiences that increased the likelihood that our seniors would, if given the chance to relive their college decision, definitely choose Augustana again.  I think this is an important outcome question because it suggests the degree to which our seniors think that the money they spent to attend Augustana was worth it.  Since without tuition revenue we are out of business, this is an aspect of our work that we simply can’t ignore.

Our analyses revealed that the degree to which our seniors’ out-of-class experiences helped them connect their classroom learning with real-life events significantly increased the likelihood that they would definitely choose Augustana again.  I’d like to emphasize that we were testing whether students would DEFINITELY choose Augustana again – not “maybe” or “probably.”  In essence, in addition to being an important driver of student learning, I think our seniors explicitly recognized the educational value of these experiences.  As such, they were more than able to connect this educational value with the long-term benefits of the financial investment they had made.

I would suggest that this finding can guide the way that we talk about the value or worth of an Augustana education AND the way that we think about the admittedly amorphous notion of a value proposition.  At it’s essence, “value proposition” is supposed to represent the maximum synergy between the value promised by an institution and the perception by the student that this value will be fully delivered.  The difficulty, temptation, and sometimes suspicion, is that the folks who concentrate on establishing and strengthening a value proposition tend to focus more on the glitz of the marketing than the quality of the product.  Nonetheless, whatever your opinion of this phrase it’s hard to deny the concept’s importance.

In the context of this notion of value proposition, the data point I’ve described above puts in mind the famous line from the movie Field of Dreams. “If you build it, he will come.”  (No it’s not “they” . . . and yes, I was surprised too)  Every college in the country right now is pulling out all of the stops to create the most persuasive marketing campaign.  While we have admittedly been doing the same thing, we have also been concentrating on building an educational experience that is as fundamentally effective as it is precisely interwoven.  We may not have perfected our product, but we have developed an educational experience that is consistently producing robust evidence of strong learning outcomes.  I would humbly suggest that the key to maximizing our value proposition is in the product we build.  More than simply listing all of the experiential learning opportunities in which students can participate, when we can explain to students how each of these experiences is designed to help them apply and solidify an important aspect of their learning and development toward the person they aspire to be, we make a case for an Augustana education that is substantially more nuanced, adaptable, and compelling than the argument that prospective students hear from most other institutions.

I believe this is a way that we can ultimately communicate distinctiveness in a manner that is both powerful and personal.  More importantly, it allows us to live a story that never stops getting better.  And at the end of the day, that sure feels like we are doing what we were meant to do.

Make it a good day,

Mark