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