The post-Thanksgiving haze

Believe it or not, I try to have a life outside of educational assessment and improvement of student learning.  That means – for example – participating in all of the normal stuff that people do over the Thanksgiving holiday.  So over the past five days I’ve packed suitcases, adapted to changes in travel plans, made conversation with all manner of family, and wished I hadn’t eaten __________.  I find it a bit troubling that although I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about learning from past behaviors to improve future behaviors I can’t seem to learn from my previous mistakes regarding serving size, mashed potatoes, and gravy.

All this is simply to say that I didn’t write a thing last weekend.  Sorry.  And my fingers might actually now be too fat to fit onto a normal keyboard.  So you’ll have to wait til next week for another post.

Usually, I write about data findings that are ambiguous in some way.  This week, I can only write about something that was delicious.  Literally.  And most of me now regrets that second helping.  Actually, maybe the regret is really about the third helping . . .

Make it a good day,

Mark

Assessing our current process of math (mis)placement

Nobody likes placement tests.  For incoming students, they revive the specter of being evaluated on material they have already forgotten.  For our Summer Connections staff, they become the perpetual reason that students don’t complete the registration process properly.  And for faculty, placement tests seem to miss a growing proportion of students that quickly appear in over their head in class even though the tests “placed” those students in it.

Over the last few weeks, based on questions asked by the math faculty and some very thoughtful conversations and suggestions on their part, we have been taking a hard look at our math placement process.  We compared it with alternative methods of placement and tracked students over each of the last four years to see how they did in the math courses they took.  We’ve found all kinds of interesting tidbits that have spurred some important solutions that I think will help our students in the years to come.  But one piece of data stood out to me that I wanted to share concerning (a) the difference between our incoming students’ perception of college and the way that we would like them to engage it, and (b) the ramifications of that difference.

Before launching into this post, however, I have to give a massive shout out to Kimberly Dyer, the backbone of my office, for her work on this project.  She has done all of the data organizing and analysis.  If I’m being honest, this week I’m just riding the coat tails of greatness.

Although our current math placement protocol is set up to place students across a range of math courses, a large proportion of students end up placing into either pre-calculus or calculus I.  Students with a math placement score of 20 or below are assigned to pre-calculus and students with a 25 or above are assigned to calculus I or higher.  But for the students who score between 21-24, we tell them to consult with advisers and others to determine which math course – pre-calculus or calculus I – is the best fit for them.

All else being equal, I think it’s safe to say that on average we would expect students who earn a 21 or a 22 to enroll more often in pre-calculus and students who earn a 23 or 24 would enroll more often in calculus I.  Unfortunately . . . .

Math Placement Score

Enrolled in Pre-Calculus

Enrolled in Calculus I

21

18

25

22

18

34

23

14

27

24

12

40

As you can see in the table above, for all of the placement scores in this ‘tweener group, more students chose to enroll in calculus I than in pre-calculus.  Yet, maybe it’s not a problem because all of these students are able to handle calculus I.  The table below shows the subsequent grades for students at each placement score who chose to take calculus instead of pre-calculus.

Math Placement Score

Earned a B- or better

Earned a D, F, or withdrew

21

32%

36%

22

21%

41%

23

37%

37%

24

55%

20%

Apparently, students who earn scores that would cause most of us to think twice before registering for calculus I are more often taking calculus I anyway.  And the failure rates lay out in pretty stark terms the consequences of that decision.  Clearly, there must be other issues at play that would convince an incoming freshman to choose the more advanced math course when their placement score suggests some caution in considering the more advanced course.

The folks who help with registration at Summer Connection often describe the pressures that students and their parents bring to this issue.  Many students are worried about graduating in four years and therefore want to take the highest level of courses they can take.  Others think that because they took pre-calculus in high school, they should automatically take calculus I – regardless of their assessed degree of preparation as measured by the placement test.  Moreover, some may not want to face that fact that although they may have passed pre-calculus in high school, they didn’t learn as much as they would like to think.

In my mind, this disconnect exemplifies the degree to which incoming students and families don’t grasp the difference between going to college to acquire content knowledge and going to college to develop skills and dispositions.  In their mind, content acquisition is isolated to a given course.  Content learned or not learned in one course is not likely to affect the ability to learn content in another course.  However, we know that content is continually changing, and in today’s world it is practically ubiquitous.  While it is necessary, it is not sufficient, and is only a part of our ultimate educational goal.  For us, content is the mechanism by, or the context within which, we develop skills and dispositions.  Then the content helps us re-situate those skills and dispositions in settings akin to the environments in which students will be expected to excel after college.

This misunderstanding of the point of college – and more specifically the educational outcomes we intend for students who attend Augustana – has major implications for students.  For these kids who perceive college to be about content acquisition, they see it as a sort of intellectual pie eating contest, where it makes complete sense to bite off more than you can chew to get what you can and gobble your way to the finish line regardless of whether or not you happen to throw up along the way or stir up an indigestional nightmare at the end.  On the contrary, if students understand that college is about developing skills and dispositions, I think that they might be more likely to appreciate the chance to start at the beginning that is appropriate for them, savoring each experience like a slow cooked, seven course meal because they know that the culmination of college is made exponentially better by the particular ordering and integrating of the flavors that have come before.

Although we definitely need to emphasize this message from the moment of students’ first interaction with Augustana, convincing students AND their parents to understand and embrace this conceptual turn is not the sole responsibility of admissions or Summer Connections or even LSFY.  For students to grasp the implications of this shift, they need to hear it from all of us repeatedly.  Otherwise, there are too many external pressures that will influence students to engage in academic behaviors that will ultimately harm their development.  We may well need to eliminate the ‘tweener category of math placement scores, but this is not the only situation where that monster raises its ugly head.  However, if we are vigilant, I think we will help many more students deliberately and intentionally suck the marrow out of their four years at Augustana instead of treating like an eating contest.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

Finding the ideal balance between faculty and administrators

During the term break, the Chronicle of Higher Education reviewed a research paper about the impact of an administrator-faculty ratio on institutional costs.  The researchers were seeking evidence to test the long-standing hypothesis that the rising costs in higher education can be attributed to an ever-growing administrator class.  The paper’s authors found that the ideal ratio of faculty to administrators at large research institutions was 3:1 and that institutions with a lower ratio (fewer faculty per administrator) tend to be more expensive.

Even though we are a small liberal arts college and not the type of institution on which this study focused, I wondered what our ratio might look like.  I am genuinely curious about the relationship between in-class educators (faculty) and out-of-class educators (student affairs staff) because we often emphasize our belief in the holistic educational value of a residential college experience.  In addition, since some have expressed concern about a perceived increase in administrative positions, I thought I’d run our numbers and see what turns up.

Last year, Augustana employed 184 full time, tenured or tenure-track faculty and 65 administrators.  Thus, the ratio of faculty to administrators was 2.8 to 1.  If we were to include faculty FTE and administrator FTE (which means we include all part-time folks as one-third of a full time employee and add them to the equation), the ratio becomes 3.35 to 1.  By comparison, in 2003 (the earliest year in which this data was reported to IPEDS), our full time, tenured or tenure-track faculty (145) to administrator (38) ratio was 3.82 to 1.  When using FTE numbers, that ratio slips to 4.29 to 1.

What should we make of this?  On its face, it appears that we’ve suffered from the same disease that has infected many larger institutions.  Over about ten years, the balance between faculty to administrators has shifted even though we have increased the size of the faculty considerably.  But if you consider these changes in the context of our students (something that seems to me to be a rather important consideration), the results seem to paint a different picture.  For even though our ratio of faculty to administrators might have shifted, our ratios of students to faculty and students to administrators have moved in similar directions over the same period, with the student/faculty ratio going from about 14:1 to just over 11:1 and our student/administrator ratio going from about 51:1 to close to 39:1.  Proportionally, both ratios drop by about 20%.

For me, these numbers inspire two questions that I think are worth considering.  First, although the absolute number of administrators includes a wide variety of campus offices, a substantial proportion of “administrators” exist in student affairs.  And there seems to be some disparity between the nature of the educational relationship that we find acceptable between students and in-class educators (faculty) and between students and out-of-class educators (those administrators who work in student affairs).  There’s a lot to sort out here (and I certainly don’t have it all pegged), but this disparity doesn’t seem to match up with the extent to which we believe that important student learning and development happens outside of the classroom.  Now I am not arguing that the student/administrator ratio should approach 11:1.  Admittedly, I have no idea what the ideal student/faculty ratio or student/administrator ratio should be (although, like a lot of things, distilling that relationship down to one ratio is probably our first big mistake). Nonetheless, I suspect we would all benefit from a deeper understanding of the way in which our student affairs professionals impact our students’ development.  As someone who spends most of my time in the world of academic affairs, I wonder whether my own efforts to support this aspect of the student learning experience have not matched the degree to which we believe it is important.  Although I talk the talk, I’m not sure I’ve fully walked the walk.

Second, examining the optimal ratio between faculty and administrators doesn’t seem to have much to do with student learning.  I fear that posing this ratio without a sense of the way in which we collaboratively contribute to student learning just breathes life into an administrator vs. faculty meme that tends to pit one against the other.  If we start with a belief that there is an “other side,” and we presume the other side to be the opposition before we even begin a conversation, we are dead in the water.

Our students need us to conceptualize their education in the same way that they experience it – as one comprehensive endeavor.  We – faculty, administrators, admissions staff, departmental secretaries, food service staff, grounds crew, Board of Trustees – are all in this together.  And from my chair, I can’t believe how lucky I am to be one of your teammates.

Make it a good day,

Mark