One course just won’t do it

From time to time, Augustana lets me out of my little cave so that I can attend a conference related to higher education research or assessment of student learning outcomes.   A few weeks ago, a paper was presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) that I found fascinating and particularly germane to many of the conversations we have at Augustana about the effects of particular curricular emphases on broader student learning outcomes.

This particular paper examined the influence of required diversity courses on students’ inclination toward civic engagement.  At many institutions the general education curricula is organized around a series of categories from which students choose one or two courses to meet the institution’s requirements.  This paper hypothesized that perhaps one course on diversity issues was not enough to influence substantive, lasting learning.  The authors examined data from about 500 students, gathered at the beginning of the first year and at the end of the fourth year.  The authors also had access to student transcripts that allowed them to identify which courses the students took to fulfill their general education requirements.

Students in this study had two options in fulfilling the diversity requirement.  They could take a domestic diversity course or a global diversity course.  In some cases, students took both – especially since some courses within the diversity category also fulfilled other requirements necessary for graduation.  Thus, the researchers could test the effect of taking one domestic diversity course, one global diversity course, or both courses on students’ gains in attitudes toward civic engagement.

The study found that the only students who made substantive gains in an inclination toward civic engagement were those who took both the domestic and global diversity courses.  Conversely, students who took only one course focused on either domestic or global diversity had not unique effect on attitudinal gains.

The take away from this paper, and the discussion that followed really honed in on the tendency for us to think that substantive learning can be accomplished by a single course – a “check the box” approach.   Of course, as we think about designing a new curriculum these findings might be useful to consider.  More broadly, however, I would suggest that this paper reinforces the idea that substantive learning is a function of a series of related experiences rather than any one experience.   We are the ones who can help our students engage in related experiences and help to point out those connections.

Make it a good day.

Mark

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