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)











Social Sciences





Biological Sciences





Physical Sciences















Fine Arts





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,




“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,


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,



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,


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


Comparisons Institutions

Difference Score

Frequency of higher-order exams and assignments



+2.3 *

Challenging classes and high faculty expectations



+2.5 *

2009 Spring – Support Metrics


Comparisons Institutions

Difference Score

Quality of non-classroom interaction with faculty




Prompt feedback




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


Comparisons Institutions

Difference Score

Frequency of higher-order exams and assignments




Challenging classes and high faculty expectations




2012 Spring – Support Metrics


Comparisons Institutions

Difference Score

Quality of non-classroom interaction with faculty



+5.6 *

Prompt feedback



+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.



Expanding our Academic Challenge Distinction beyond the First Year

Since 2011, two national studies of successful learning outcome improvement through educational assessment have highlighted our efforts at Augustana College.  First, the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) published a report detailing the ways that a small group of uniquely successful institutions developed and maintain a positive culture of assessment and improvement.  Second, the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) conducted an in-depth study of eight institutions, chosen from an original pool of 534 colleges and universities that had made significant gains on various NSSE benchmark scores, to identify some of the organizational values and practices that allow these institutions to make such clearly demonstrable improvements in their educational environments.

The data point that most clearly jumped out to both research teams involved the degree to which our first-year scores on the NSSE Academic Challenge benchmark increased between 2003 and 2009.  This benchmark scale asked a series of questions about the amount of time and effort students must put into their coursework to meet academic expectations and has been a staple of NSSE and the Wabash National Study.  As many of you know, we can pin our own improved Academic Challenge scores to the overhaul of our general education and LSFY programs about seven years ago, when a preponderance of earlier data simply didn’t comport with the kind of institution we wanted to be.  And even though we continue to note, discuss, and tweak perceived weaknesses that have emerged since implementing AGES, we shouldn’t let these more recently identified concerns detract from the fact that our earlier efforts were thoroughly successful in improving the educational quality of Augustana’s first year experience.

Yet the evidence of an improved educational environment (as represented by an increase in the academic challenge experienced by our students) did not seem to extend beyond the first year.  In our 2009 NSSE report, despite a significant difference in first-year academic challenge scores between Augustana and a group of 30 similar residential liberal arts colleges, our fourth-year academic challenge scores remained no different than other institutions.  Many of us were troubled by the possibility that the distinction in academic quality that we might have established in the first year could have eroded entirely by the end of the fourth year.  Although senior inquiry was intended to help us increase our level of academic challenge in the fourth year, the 2009 NSSE report did not reflect any impact of that effort (likely because SI was not fully implemented until 2010 or 2011).  So when we received our Wabash National Study four-year summary report a few weeks ago, I specifically wanted to examine our seniors’ overall score to the Academic Challenge scale to see if we’d made any progress on this rather important measure of educational quality.

(At this point, the empathetic side of my brain/soul/elven spirit/gaseous particles has guilted me into offering a pre-emptive apology.  I am going to talk about some numbers without giving you all the detailed context behind those numbers.  If you want more context, you know where to find me.  Otherwise, try to hang in there and trust that the changes these numbers represent are substantial and worth discussing.)

The Wabash National Study evidence suggests that, once again, our efforts to respond to assessment data with changes that will improve Augustana’s educational quality seem to have born fruit.  Between 2009 and 2012, our seniors’ Academic Challenge score jumped from 62.6 to 64.3 – a statistically significant increase.  Moreover, the difference between our mean score and the average Academic Challenge score of the 32 similar institutions that participated in the Wabash National Study (61.0) was statistically significant – suggesting that something we are doing during the fourth year distinguishes the academic quality that we provide from those institutions.  For my own information and confidence in this conclusion, I also looked at the 2012 NSSE annual report just to see if these Wabash Study numbers differed in any meaningful way from the much larger sample of institutions that participated in NSSE.  Again, our Academic Challenge scores placed us above the NSSE average of similar liberal arts institutions (62.5) and well above the overall NSSE average (58.4).

All of this evidence seems to point toward a familiar and heartening – if not downright exciting – conclusion.  Our efforts to improve the educational quality of an Augustana experience are working (or as the famous line goes, “I love it when a plan comes together!” . . . yes, I just quoted Hannibal Smith from the 1980s TV show “The A-Team” in a blog about institutional research.  I’m fired up – deal with it.).  The academic challenge our students’ experience in their fourth year appears to have increased.  And while we don’t have comparative data on the degree to which this effort has increased our students’ learning outcome gains (because we don’t have identical pretest-posttest outcomes data from 2009), it is clear from the Wabash National Study data that our 2012 Wabash Study participants repeatedly made larger learning outcome gains than students at the 32 similar institutions participating in same study.

Later this year we will receive the full Wabash study dataset that will allow us to examine the responses to each individual question in this scale.  I am looking forward to digging deeper into that data.  But for the time being, I think we deserve to take a moment and congratulate ourselves as a community of educators dedicated to the success of our students.  Although we continually hear critics of higher education lament that institutions refuse to collect the kind of data necessary to meaningfully assess themselves, or that faculty perpetually resist making the kind of changes that might substantively improve an institution’s educational quality, we now have multiple sources of evidence to demonstrate that, while we might not be without reproach, we have living, breathing evidence of our successful efforts to improve the Augustana education.

Are we there yet?  No.  Will we ever be there?  Of course, not.  But are we genuinely walking the walk of an institution committed to its students and its educational mission?  Absolutely.

Make it a good day,



62.6 to 64.3

Do student’s GPA suffer when they take more classes?

One claim (given as advice) that I’ve heard ever since I was a plump, pimple-faced college freshman is that taking a heavier academic load in a given term (no matter the calendar) increases the likelihood that one’s grades will suffer.  It seems intuitive:

more classes (and thus more homework) / the same number of hours in a week =          less study time to allocate to each class and therefore potentially lower grades

At Augustana we are understandably sympathetic to this concern because of the degree to which we often try to pack an extensive amount of learning into our shortened academic terms while maintaining the comparatively higher number of hours in class that we require for a credit hour.  Many of us can weave a harrowing tale of students’ swamped by the academic requirements of a four-course term, but it would be wise to wonder whether our individual anecdotes actually represent the experiences of most students.  So a few weeks ago, we decided to empirically examine this wide-spread belief.  Since this concern is often raised by faculty and administrators when discussing the merits of potential policy changes, this hypothesis seems a compelling argument to test.

So we examined our students’ term-by-term GPAs over the last three years (nine terms from the fall of 2009 to the spring of 2012), comparing the GPAs of students who attempted between 8 and 11 credits – less than four three-credit courses – with the GPAs of students who attempted 12 or more credits – four three-credit courses or more.  Moreover, we conducted this analysis in two stages.  In the first analysis we only tested whether the number of credits attempted significantly impacted students’ end-of-term GPA.  In our second analysis, we accounted for two potentially confounding factors: (1) a student’s pre-college academic ability, and (2) a student’s year in school, to make sure that any statistically significant effect we might find wasn’t a function of another plausible explanation.

Our first set of analyses surprised us.  Because we thought we’d find one of two possible outcomes – either the reigning hypothesis would hold true or we would find no significant difference between the two groups.  So we were pretty shocked when we found that in every academic term from fall of 2009 through spring of 2012, students who attempted 12 or more credits, on average, earned a HIGHER GPA (between .05 and .12 points) than those who attempted 8-11 credits.  Huh?

In the second stage of our analyses, we held constant students’ incoming ACT score and year in school.  At this point, I was sure that we’d end up with insignificant findings.  Instead, the finding from our first analyses held throughout.  Not only do students who are taking a heavier load not suffer in terms of a lower GPA for that term, but their GPAs (no matter the year in school or their incoming academic ability) were marginally higher.  Huh.

So what does this mean?  Certainly, the obligations of a heavier credit load can adversely affect a student’s stress level or sleep patterns even if they don’t necessarily impact grades.  And unfortunately, the only data we have readily accessible is term-by-term GPA and term-by term-credits attempted.  In addition, the findings might be different if we looked at each student’s term-by-term GPAs longitudinally instead of comparing all students cross-sectionally across a given term.  However, students must pay overage fees to take more than 33 credits a year, so the chances of a substantial portion of students consistently taking 12 or more credits, earning strong grades, and compromising this finding is pretty low.  In the end it seems that a heavier credit load doesn’t impact students’ grades in the way that we might have thought.

I wonder if this finding exemplifies a disconnect between the way that we tend to think students engage college and the way that they actually manage their college experience.  For years we have lamented the difference between the amount of time we think that our students should study and the amount of time our survey data suggests that they actually study.  Yet these same students graduate with an average GPA of 3.3, an increasing number of them graduate with honors, and many of them go on to successful, challenging professional lives.  And lest some might want to resurrect the allegation that this is further evidence of the corrosive effects of grade inflation, (1) we have multiple sources of evidence that suggest our students make more than respectable gains on various learning outcomes, and (2) we tested the grade inflation claim last year and found it to be explained by increases in our students’ incoming ACT scores over the past two decades.

I wonder if this is an indication that students are more capable of prioritizing their time and effort than we might give them credit sometimes.  And while I’m not suggesting that this finding should be used to require that they take a heavier academic load every term, I wonder if we might take our feet off of the academic gas pedal a little too easily sometimes – which is easy to do in the face of a roomful of scowling students to whom you have just assigned an additional assignment.  One student experience measured in the Wabash National Study that was particularly predictive of learning gains was the degree to which students were challenged to work harder than they thought they could to meet their instructor’s expectations.  Our finding regarding grades and course load suggests a similar result.  If we push our students, they might surprise us.

Make it a good day,



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,




Hey, . . . how did we do that???

Welcome back!  I hope your engine is recharged for the spring term.

You might remember that about this time last year I was talking to anyone who would listen about the importance of the final round of data collection for the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education (WNS).  The WNS was designed to combine learning outcome measures with student experience and pre-college characteristics data so that institutions could (1) assess student change over time on specific learning outcomes and (2) begin to identify the experiences that influenced that progress.  Augustana joined the third and final iteration of the WNS in 2008, so 2012/13  was our make or break year to get data from as many seniors as possible.  Since the study measured change over time, without senior year data, participation in the study would have been a giant waste of time.  After a nearly herculean effort and a paper bag full of gift cards to the Augie bookstore, we were able to entice about 190 seniors to participate – 120 of whom had also provided data during their freshman year.  All together, this dataset gives us a chance to thoroughly analyze the learning experience of a fairly representative sample of our 2012 graduates and make some generalizations about our overall educational effectiveness.

Last week we received the first of several long-awaited reports outlining our students’ results on the learning outcomes measured by the WNS.  I’d like to share one particular finding (I’ll share others with you over the course of the spring term) and ask your help in thinking about what might be behind it.  It’s not quite “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” (thank you, Winston Churchill), but it’s got me flummoxed.

One outcome of particular importance to religiously-affiliated liberal arts colleges is moral and ethical judgment.  For a lot of reasons we hope that our students develop a  sophisticated sense of the principles and values that shape their understanding of right and wrong.  Moreover, we hope that our graduates act as principled citizens who stand up for those values even in the face of pressure to conform or fear of reprisal.

It turns out that Augustana students made remarkable gains on the WNS measure of moral judgment.  In fact, our students’ gains were on average 50% larger than the average gains made by students at the 32 other small colleges that participated in the WNS.  Digging a little deeper, virtually all of that positive advantage (i.e., the 50% larger gain noted above) occurred during the first year.  After making substantially larger gains than students at comparable institutions, during the sophomore to senior year our students’ growth did not differ substantially from students at other institutions in the study.  In other words, our student raced out to big lead during the first year and held it through to graduation.

This finding is both exciting and, to be honest, a little troubling.  First, it is exciting that we now have some hard evidence to support our claim that Augustana graduates develop deeper and more sophisticated moral and ethical judgment.  One of the major criticisms of higher education institutions is that we make bold claims with very little proof to back them up.  Now we can say with some degree of certainty that we do what we say we do.

However, there is something about this finding that troubles me – and is the issue that I’d like your help with.  The findings from the WNS suggest that the bulk of our students’ growth in moral judgment happens during their first year.  Since we would like to think that we have intentionally designed the educational experience of our students, then we should be able to point to the program or combination of programs that likely produce this remarkable gain in moral judgment.  This is from whence my flummox cometh.

Now if we were only interested in proving our educational value, this data would make me think something along the lines of “game, set, match Vikings.”  But our interest in assessing student learning shouldn’t be merely about validating claims that we’ve already made. That is a dangerous game to play to be sure.  Rather, I want to know how we can do what we do just a little bit better.  Instead of merely proving our worth, I’m interested in improving our quality.

And I don’t think I can pinpoint any particular program that is designed to influence this outcome.  Our only curricular mandate for first year students is the LSFY sequence.  Are their other courses that we might to which we might attribute these gains, such as the Christian Traditions course?  I know the faculty who teach those courses do wonderful things, but I’m not sure the focus of that course is developing moral judgment.  Is there a program designed for first year students that is run by residence life or student activities?  I just don’t know.

The reason it seems important to me to be able to identify the experiences that are driving this gain is that we should want to take full advantage of this finding and figure out ways that we can take advantage of something that we are already doing well.  And this is where I’m stuck.  What are we doing that is working?  Is this just luck?  Coincidence?  I’d like to think not.

It seems pretty likely that there is something going on here that sets us apart from the other schools in the WNS.  The number of participants in the study and the size of the difference in gains is just too large for this to be a function of random chance.  So if you have an idea of what might be influencing our students’ gains in moral judgment, please post it in the comments section.  For us to be best able to (1) make our case as an institution to prospective students and families, and (2) maximize what we do in a way that takes full advantage of our talents and resources, we need to figure out what is driving these gains.

Make it a good day,


Compete with MOOCs?! Why not co-opt them instead?

Since I won’t write another blog post until the beginning of spring term, I thought I’d write something a little different.  Instead of a traditional data-filled post, I am going to weigh in with a suggestion – an opinion that is merely my own, not to be confused with some broader administrative position.  I’ve been mulling this one over since the explosion of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) last year, but it really came to a boil last week when I read about Scott Young and his MIT Challenge.

At first glance, Scott Young’s MIT Challenge smells like the arrogant prank of an affluent Silicon Valley prodigy.  A recent university graduate who fancies himself a blogger, writer, and “holistic learner” decides to see if he can complete the entire MIT curriculum for a computer science major in a year without enrolling in any MIT classes.  Instead, he plans to download all course materials – including lectures, homework assignments, and final exams – from MIT’s open courseware site and MIT’s edX.  He’ll only spend money on text books and internet access, which he estimates will cost about $2000 over the course of the entire curriculum (a paltry sum compared to cost of attending MIT for one year – $57,010 in 2012/13).

Well, he did it (that little @$#&!).  From September 2011 to September 2012, Mr. Young completed and passed all of the course work expected of MIT students to earn a major in computer science.  And just in case you think it a braggart’s hoax, he posted all of his course work, exams, and projects to verify that he actually pulled it off.  Essentially, If he had been a paying MIT student, he would now be considered one of their alums.  He might not have graduated cum laude, but you know what they call the person who graduates last in his class from Harvard Medical School (for those of you who haven’t heard the joke, the answer is “doctor”).

My point isn’t to celebrate the accomplishments of a brash, albeit intriguing, young man from Manitoba (wouldn’t you know it, this guy turns out to be Canadian!).  In the context of the academic tendencies we all too often see in students, his feat suggests more that he is an outlier among young adults than that a tsunami of self-directed learners is headed our way.

Rather, the simple fact that the full curriculum of a computer science degree from MIT is already freely available online should blow up any remaining notion that we, or any other small liberal arts college, can continue to act as if we are the lone gatekeepers of postsecondary content knowledge.  The ubiquitous availability of this kind of content knowledge delivered freely in educationally viable ways makes many a small college’s course catalogue seem like a quaint relic of a nostalgic past.  Moreover, if any major we offer is merely, or even mostly, an accumulation of content-heavy survey courses and in-depth seminars, we make ourselves virtually indistinguishable from an exponentially expanding range of educational options – except for our exorbitant cost.  And though we might stubbornly argue that our classes are smaller, our faculty more caring, or the expectations more demanding (all of which may indeed be so!), if the education we offer appears to prospective students as if it differs little from far less expensive educational content providers (e.g., general education is designed to provide content introductions across a range of disciplines, majors are organized around time periods, major theoretical movements, or subfields, students earn majors or minors in content-heavy areas), we increase the likelihood that future students will choose the less expensive option – even as they may whole-heartedly agree that we are marginally better.  And if those less expensive providers happen to be prestigious institutions like MIT, we are definitely in trouble.  For even if there is a sucker born every minute, I doubt there will be many who are willing to borrow gargantuan sums of money to pay for the same content knowledge that they can acquire for 1/100th of the cost – especially when they can supplement it on their own as needed.

Admittedly, I am trying to be provocative.  But please note that I haven’t equated “content knowledge” with “an education.”  Because in the end, the bulk of what Mr. Young acquired was content knowledge.  He’d already earned a undergraduate degree in a traditional setting, and by all indications, seems to have benefited extensively from that experience.  At Augustana, our educational mission has always been about much more than content knowledge.  This reality is clearly articulated in the composition of our new student learning outcomes.  We have recognized that content knowledge is a necessary but by no means sufficient condition of a meaningful education.   With this perspective, I’d like to suggest that we explicitly cast ourselves in this light: as guides that help students evaluate, process, and ultimately use that knowledge.  This doesn’t mean that we devalue content knowledge.  Rather, it means that we deliberately position content as a means to a greater end, more explicitly designing every aspect of our enterprise to achieve it.  Incidentally, this also gives us a way to talk about the educational value of our co-curricular experiences that directly ties them to our educational outcomes and makes them less susceptible to accusations of edu-tainment, extravagance, or fluff.

To date, the vast majority of successful MOOCs and online programs focuses on traditional content knowledge delivery or skill development specific to a given profession.  The research on the educational effectiveness of online courses suggests that while online delivery can be at least as effective as face-to-face courses in helping students develop and retain content knowledge and lower-order thinking skills, face-to-face courses tend to be more effective in developing higher-order thinking skills.  So if our primary focus is on showing students how to use the knowledge they have acquired to achieve a deeper educational goal rather than merely delivering said content to them, then . . . .

What if, instead of fearing the “threat” of MOOCs and online learning, we chose to see them as a wonderful cost- and time-saving opportunity?  What if we were to co-opt the power and efficiency of MOOCs and other online content delivery mechanisms to allow us to focus more of our time and face-to-face resources on showing students how to use that knowledge?  I don’t begin to claim to have a fully fleshed-out model of what all of this would look like (in part because I don’t think there is a single model of how an institution might pull this off), but it seems to me that if we choose to see the explosion of online learning possibilities as a threat, we drastically shorten our list of plausible responses (i.e., ignore them and hope they go away or try to compete without a glimmer of the resources necessary to do so).  On the other hand, if we co-opt the possibilities of online learning and find ways to fit them into our current educational mission, our options are as broad as the possibilities are endless.  I guess I’d rather explore an expanding horizon.  Enjoy your break.

Make it a good day,