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

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