How does student learning happen?

Since it’s finals week, I’ll be quick.  However, I hope you’ll take some time to think about this little tidbit below as our strategic planning conversations address examine how we are going to make sure that every student develops the ability to integrate ideas to solve complex problems.

I saw George Kuh give a talk on Saturday afternoon in which he showed the following cartoon.  Even though the whole audience found it funny, the point he was trying to make about the degree to which we often fail to ensure that students learn what we say we teach them was dead serious.

We claim that a liberal arts education teaches students how to integrate disparate ideas from a wide range of disciplines and contexts to solve complex 21st century problems.  At the same time, however, the experiences we require are specific to individual disciplines or topics while the truly integrative experiences remain optional add-ons . . . if they exist at all outside of the major.

So the question I’d ask you to think about is this:  How do we know that every student participates in a rigorously designed activity that explicitly develops the ability to integrate knowledge from multiple fields of study to solve substantive, complex problems? And how could we design a college experience where we could demonstrate that every student participated in such an activity?

Make it a good day.  And have a great fall break.

Mark

Week 10 + Halloween + Slicing Data = Disengaged Zombie Students!

I suspect that the confluence of Week 10 and Halloween brings out a little crazy in each of us.  So I thought I’d share a brief response that I prepared for a recent media request regarding the potential existence of one underserved student population on our campus.

From our senior survey data, we find that students who self-report as Zombies also report statistically significantly lower levels of engagement across a wide range of important student experiences. These differences include lower levels of participation in class discussion despite higher satisfaction with faculty feedback.

Zombie students also report lower levels of co-curricular influence on understanding how one relates to others. Further qualitative study suggests a broad lack of self-awareness.

In addition, Zombie students indicate that they have fewer serious conversations with students who differ by race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or social values.  Instead, Zombie students seem to congregate together and rarely reach out of their comfort zone.

Interestingly, our first-to-second year retention rate of student zombies is 100%, despite the high number of PUGS and CARE reports.  Yet our six year graduation rate is 0%. While some have expressed concern over this dismal data point, a few administrators who are closely involved in managing the graduation ceremony have suggested that the graduation ceremony is long enough already without having Zombie students shuffling aimlessly across the stage to get their diploma.

Interestingly, Zombie students report an increased level of one-on-one student/faculty interaction outside of class.  We find no evidence to suggest that this correlates in any way with the substantial drop in the number of part-time and adjunct faculty from last year (108) to this year (52).

Happy Halloween and have a wonderful Week 10.

Make it a good day,

Mark

Does our educational community lose something when seniors live off campus?

I’ve yet to find an Augustana senior who wishes they lived on campus.  In fact, the seniors I’ve talked to seem almost relieved to finally stretch their wings and move into the surrounding neighborhoods, even though they often say they had hoped to find a cheaper or nicer place nearby.  As far as I can tell, seniors have lived off campus at least since the 1970s, and this practice is so embedded into our culture that the very name of our junior students’ housing – Transitional Living Areas (TLAs) – announces our desire to prepare seniors to live on their own.

As our strategic planning discussions have coalesced around designing and implementing a purposefully integrated, comprehensive Augustana learning experience, I’ve been thinking about the real challenge of creating a plan that allows us to balance the individualized needs of each student with the core elements of a genuine community.  Although this might not appear all that difficult at first, efforts to achieve goals for individuals or certain subgroups of students can sometimes run at cross-purposes with maintaining a community culture optimal for student learning.  Several years ago we found an interesting example of such unintended consequences when we discovered that our efforts to encourage students to join multiple campus organizations (knowing that such behavior often enhances social integration and ultimately influences retention) was likely, albeit unintentionally, limiting the chances for conversations between students from substantially different backgrounds or demographic groups (thus undermining our efforts to increase students’ intercultural competence).

With all of this in mind, I was stuck by one data point from last year’s seniors about the impact of our fourth year residential status. The question asked our graduating seniors, “How often did you participate in on-campus events during your senior year?”  Responses ranged as follows:

  • less than when I lived on campus (200 – 39.9%)
  • about the same as when I lived on campus (279 – 55.7%)
  • more than when I lived on campus (22 – 4.4%)

So how does this relate to the aforementioned tension between encouraging individual development and fostering an ideal educational community?

First of all, when we talk about Augustana College, we almost uniformly talk about the educational and developmental benefits of a four-year residential experience.  I suspect that when we talk in these terms, we imagine that this distinguishing characteristic plays an influential role at both the level of the individual and the community.  At the individual level it presents itself in the form of leadership positions and the responsibility of being the senior class.  At the communal level it presents itself through those same channels but in terms of the influence of those leaders on younger students and the atmosphere and legacy that a senior class can create that can permeate an entire campus.  While this can play out in both directions through formal channels and during formally organized events, the broader impacts are likely more pervasive through informal rituals and signaling (to use a term familiar to social psychologists and anthropologists).

However, if our seniors are living off campus in their last year, it seems like this could, at the very least, limit the educational potential and influence of the fourth year students on the rest of the student community.  Based on the substantial proportion of seniors who indicated that they participated in fewer campus events than when they lived on campus, and taking into account our other data that clearly shows a high level of overall involvement among our students overall, I’d suggest that we might have set up a situation where we have maintained the educational opportunities that contribute to individual development among our seniors, but we may be missing out on some of the benefits to a residential educational community that our senior class might provide if they lived on campus.

There are lots of reasons to suggest that we should be cautious in drawing too many conclusions from this particular data point.  For many of our seniors, they may be busy with off-campus internships, graduate school applications, or other involvements that emerge as they begin to prepare for life after college.  They could also be hosting off-campus parties that have varied effects – both good and bad – on our campus community.  And given the long history of seniors living off campus, I’ll bet that there are a certain set of beliefs or mythologies about one’s senior year that are deeply embedded into the student culture.

Yet I’d ask that as we endeavor to create an integrated learning experience that is truly comprehensive and clearly distinctive in terms of preparing students for lives of financial independence, unintended discoveries, and a legacy of success, I hope we are willing to seriously consider all of the possible design elements that might make such an educational experience and environment possible.  And I hope that we are bravely able to keep a balance between the necessary elements of the culture we hope to foster with the developmental needs of our individual students.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

 

In Search of the Mysterious Muddler

On several recent occasions I have heard it said that about 25% of our students aren’t involved in anything on campus.  I am always intrigued by the way that some assertions or beliefs evolve into facts on a college campus, and this number seemed ripe for investigating.   Researchers into human behavior have found this phenomenon repeatedly and suggest that, because we want to believe our own intuition to be true, we tend to perk up at data points or anecdotes that support our beliefs.  We’ve all fallen prey to this temptation at least once – at least I have.  So I thought it might be worth testing this claim just to see if it holds up under the glare of our actual survey data.

First – to be fair, this claim isn’t totally crazy.  I can think of a particular data point that clearly nods in the direction of the 25% uninvolved claim.  For a few years, we’ve tracked the proportion of seniors who don’t use their Augie Choice money, and – although the number is steadily declining – over the last few years an average of about 25% have foregone those funds.  Others have suggested that every year we have a group of somewhere between 600 and 800 students (henceforth called “the muddlers”) who aren’t involved in anything co-curricular; athletics, music groups, or student clubs and organizations.  More ominously, some have suggested that there is a sub-population of students who are only involved in Greek organizations and that these students help to create an environment that isn’t conducive with our efforts to make Augustana a rigorous learning experience. (All of that is a wordy euphemism for “these lazy bums party too much.”).

Although the question of what should count as true involvement is a legitimate one, the question of simple participation is an empirical question that we can test.  So we looked at two sets of data – our 2013 senior survey data and our 2013 freshmen survey data – to see what proportion of students report not being involved in anything co-curricular. No athletics, no music, and no student clubs or organizations.  Then we added the question of Greek membership just to see if the aforementioned contingent of deadbeats really does exist in numbers large enough to foment demonstrable mayhem. (another wordy euphemism for “be loud and break stuff.”).

Well, I’ve got bad news for the muddlers.  Your numbers aren’t looking so hot.  From the students who graduated last spring, only 17 out of 495 said that they didn’t participate in anything (athletics, music, student groups, or Greeks).  When we took the Greek question out of the equation we only gained 5 students, ultimately finding that only about 5% (23/495) of our graduating seniors said that they didn’t participate in athletics, music, or some student group.

But what about the freshmen?  After all, the seniors are the ones who have stayed for four years.  If involvement is the magic ingredient for retention that some think it is, then we should expect this proportion to be quite a bit bigger in the freshman class.

Alas, though our muddler group appears a little bigger in the first year, it sure doesn’t approach the 25% narrative.  After eliminating freshmen who participated in athletics, music, a student group, and a Greek organization, we were left with only 15 out of 263 first year students who responded to our survey.  When we left out Greek membership, we only gained 4 students, increasing the number to 19 out of 263 (7%).  Now it’s fair to suggest that there is a limitation to this data in that we got responses from only about 45% of the freshman class.  However, even after calculating the confidence intervals (the “+/-”) in order to generalize with 95% confidence to the entire freshman class, we still end up with range in proportion of students not involved in anything co-curricular somewhere between 4 and 9 percent.

There are two other possible considerations regarding the muddler mystery.  One possibility is that there are indeed more than we know because the non-participant would also be more likely to not fill out the freshman survey.  On the other hand – as some of our faculty have observed, it’s possible that our muddlers are also the students who study more seriously; just the kind of students faculty often dream of teaching.

My reason for writing this post is NOT to suggest that we don’t have some students who need to be more involved in something outside of their classes.  We certainly have those students, and if it is almost 10% of our freshman class (as the upper bound of the confidence interval suggests), then we clearly have work to do.  Rather, it seems to me that this is another reason to think more carefully about the nature of involvement’s impact on students.  Because it appears that the students who depart after the first year are not merely uninvolved recluses (again, the limitations of the sample requires that I suggest caution in jumping to too certain a conclusion).  It seems to me that this evidence is another reason to think about involvement as a means to other outcomes that are central to our educational mission instead of an end in and of itself.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

Sometimes assessing might be the wrong thing to do

Because of the break-neck pace of our work lives, we tend to look for pre-determined processes to address problems instead of considering whether or not there is another approach that might increase the chances of a successful long-term solution.  This makes sense since pre-determined processes often feel like they help to solve complicated problems by giving us a vetted action plan.  But if we begin defaulting to this option too easily, we can sometimes create more work for ourselves just because we absentmindedly opted for “doing it the way we’re supposed to do it.”  So I thought it might be worthwhile to share an observation about our efforts to improve our educational effectiveness that could help us be more efficient in the process.

We have found tremendous value in gathering evidence to inform our decisions instead of relying on anecdotes, intuition, or speculation.  Moreover, the success of our own experiences seems to have fostered a truly positive sea-change both in terms of the frequency of requests for data that might inform an upcoming discussion or decision as well as the desire to ask new questions that might help us understand more deeply the nature of our educational endeavors.  So why would I suggest that sometimes “assessing might be the wrong thing to do?”

First, let’s revisit two different conceptions of “assessment.”  One perceives “assessment” as primarily about measuring.  It’s an act that happens over a finite period of time and produces a finding that essentially becomes the end of the act of measuring.  Another conception considers assessment as a process composed of various stages: asking a question, gathering data, designing an intervention, and evaluating the effectiveness of that intervention.  Imagine the difference between the two to mirror the difference between a dot (a point in time) and a single loop within a coil (a perpetually evolving process).  So in my mind, “measurement” is a singular act that might involve numbers or theoretical frameworks. “Assessment” is the miniature process that includes asking a question, engaging in measurement of some kind, and evaluating the effectiveness of a given intervention.  “Continuous improvement” is an organizational value that results in the perpetual application of assessment.  The focus of this post is to suggest that we might help ourselves by expanding the potential points at which we could apply a process of assessment.

Too often, after discovering the possibility that student learning resulting from a given experience might not be what we had hoped, we decide that we should measure the student learning in question.  I think we expect to generate a more robust set of data that confirms or at least complicates the information we think we already know. Usually, after several months of gathering data (and if all goes well with that process) our hunch turns out to be so.

I’d like to suggest a step prior to measuring student learning that might get us on track to improvement more quickly.  Instead of applying another means of measurement to evaluate the resultant learning, we should start by applying what we know about effective educational design to assess whether or not the experience in question is actually designed to produce the intended learning.  Because if the experience is not designed and delivered effectively, then the likelihood of it falling short of its expectations are pretty high.  And if there is one truth about educating that we already know, it’s that if we don’t teach our students something, they won’t learn it.

Assessing the design of a program or experiences takes a lot less time than gathering learning outcome data.  And it will get you to the fun part of redesigning the program or experience in question much sooner.

So if you are examining a learning experience because you don’t think it’s working as it should, start by tearing apart its design.  If the design is problematic, then skip the measuring part . . . fix it, implement the changes, and then test the outcomes.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

 

Planning, Doing, Being

Unless you’ve been holding your breath at the bottom of the slough for the past six months, you know that we are smack in the middle of developing a new strategic plan for Augustana College.  This weekend our Board of Trustees hold their annual fall meetings during which President Bahls and Dean Lawrence will provide an update to the board, answer questions, address criticisms and concerns, and work with board members to refine the strategic directions that will be prioritized in the final plan.  If you haven’t done so already, I’d highly recommend that you take some time to look at the current state of this process here.

After living in the inner sanctum of this process for the last six months, I’ve been struck by how difficult it is to effectively link the abstract aspirations of vision, mission, and strategic direction with the concrete actions, specific tactics, and measurable moments that we think will prove whether or not we have accomplished our plans.  If we lean too hard to one side, we could end up with little more than strategery – a word I use in all seriousness here because it manages to capture what happens when vision gets disconnected from any actual means of demonstrating its achievement on the ground (click here to see the origins of this word – we are in your debt, Will Ferrell.)  And if we lean too far to the other side, we can fall into the trap of simply adding a host of new programs, policies, activities, and experiences under the flawed belief that busy is always better.  If we’re honest with ourselves, I suspect we’d have to admit that we’ve driven over both of these potholes in recent years as we’ve genuinely tried to make Augustana better – in the present and for the future.

In the face of these difficulties, I understand the temptation to be silly about it and throw the strategic planning baby out with the tactical bathwater.  But that would be – in a word – stupid.  A primary reason why higher education is in such trouble these days is because so many institutions believed that they didn’t really have to plan ahead (or that anything might change over time) because they thought there would always be lots of students who would pay whatever the institution charged to sit at the feet of masters and learn whatever was taught.

Frankly, I really like a lot of what is going to be proposed and discussed this weekend. However, we are always faced with the challenge of following through.  How are we going to walk this thing out to its fullest completion, and will we really have chosen the right metrics to demonstrate the degree to which we have achieved the goal we set out to accomplish?

All of these thoughts were bouncing around in my head as I watched two TED Talks by Derek Sivers over the weekend.  Although both of them are only about three minutes long, they made me think a lot about how we might go from the laudable abstractions of mission, vision, and strategic directions to the simple, sustainable, and concrete evidence that will demonstrate to everyone whether we have reached the goals we set for ourselves.

The first TED Talk focuses on a key element of success for individuals who set goals for themselves.  The crux of his point is that those who talk too much about what they intend to accomplish can sometimes fool themselves into thinking that they have already accomplished it.  I’ve often heard a nearby college’s strategic plan described as, “Fake it ’til you make it.”  Yet there are a myriad of colleges and universities that became more selective simply by declaring themselves to be more selective.  In the end, the quality of the education they provided didn’t change a bit.  In terms of making our strategic plan something worth the kilobytes it’s saved on, we might be careful to talk more about the things we need to do or be today in order to achieve our long-term goals, and talk less about publicizing the institution we will become and the prestige we will acquire as if we were already well on our way to getting there.

The second TED Talk teases out a critical and oft overlooked moment in the origins of a social movement.  Sivers shows a video of an impromptu dance party on a hillside.  The point he makes seems to be particularly applicable to our work once the strategic plan is finalized.  Essentially, he emphasizes the leadership effect of the first follower – the individual who finds something great and has the guts to jump up and join in.

I’m sure there are several other potentially important take-aways from these clips.  I wanted to share them with you in the hopes that something from them might help us move from planning to doing to being.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Can We Talk About This?

UPDATE: Sometimes I screw up.  This is one of those times.  When I looked at this data and read the report, I misunderstood the meaning of the “attitudes toward integration of religion and spirituality in higher education” scores.  So below I stated, “On average, Augustana students believe that religion and spirituality should be a comparably less integral part of college life than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.” In actuality, our students reported the opposite.  It turns out the the questions in this scale are framed in the negative and thus the scores need to be reversed in order to understand them properly.  One could argue that the report isn’t quite clear on how to interpret this scale . . . but I still missed it.  The rest of this blog post stands and I think is still worth the pixels on the screen.  My apologies.  Mark

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At one time or another, I’ll bet you’ve heard the old advice about discussing religion or politics. As I remember it, it boils down to one word: don’t.  These days you only need to turn to CNN, MSNBC, or FOX News to see what can happen when folks go down that road.  Interestingly, these flailing pundits demonstrate perfectly why we should care so much about developing our students’ ability to effectively and civilly converse about personal beliefs, especially when talking to someone with whom they don’t agree.  Because no one can make where they live a better place if they can’t interact across all manner of difference to solve complicated problems and live better together.

The commitment to developing this attribute in our students is one of the core motivations of those who participate in the Interfaith Understanding student group, the Honest Conversation series, and Salon (among others).  Bringing disparate people together for the specific purpose of discussing conflicting personal beliefs can have a powerful impact on learning important skills like perspective-taking, suspending judgment, and reflecting instead of reacting.  Of course, it can also be uncomfortable, destabilizing, and just plain hard.  But that is exactly what good educating is – precisely because learning so often comes through stretching students beyond what is safe and familiar.

Last year Augustana participated in a national survey to better understand the impact of our efforts to foster a community where these conversations can happen.  The survey – the Campus Religious and Spirituality Climate Survey (CRSCS) assess three dimensions of a campus environment that might influence a religious and spiritual climate of tolerance, interaction, and impact.

  1. The structural worldview diversity: Perceptions of the proportional representation of various religious and non-religious groups on campus.
  2. The psychological climate: Perceptions and attitudes between and among different worldview groups.
  3. The behavioral climate: Formal and informal interactions among students of different worldviews.

We surveyed sophomores and juniors in March and April of 2013.  Although our response rate wasn’t as high as we would have liked (124 useable responses), we got enough data to make some inferences about our students’ experiences in this area and how those experiences might set up our next efforts to strengthen this aspect of student learning.

The crux of the results suggest:

  • On average, Augustana students perceive their campus community to be comparably more homogenous than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, Augustana students are comparably more accepting and express more appreciative views of students from alternate faith or belief systems (e.g., Muslim or agnostic students) than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, our students perceive there to be less conflict or separation between students from differing faith systems and worldviews on this campus than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, Augustana students have had challenging or stimulating experiences with students from different worldviews more often and believe that their college experience has altered their religious or spiritual worldview more substantially than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.
  • On average, Augustana students believe that religion and spirituality should be a comparably less integral part of college life than students at other CRSCS participant institutions.

Overall, Augustana students’ appear to be more interfaith literate and appreciative of other worldviews and belief systems than students at the other participant institutions during 2012-13.  This seems to be reflected in both the degree to which students appear to be accepting of other faith or worldview groups and the degree to which they perceive the climate to be less divided.  Moreover, Augustana students seem to perceive a greater benefit from their interactions across faith and worldview differences than students at other participating institutions.  Taken together, these findings suggest that we are making progress toward 1) creating an environment conducive to a positive college experience for students of all faiths or worldviews and 2) achieving the college-wide learning outcomes regarding intercultural competence.

Interestingly, despite the students’ own comparably more positive experiences and educational growth as a result of interfaith encounters, they seem reticent to believe that their college experience should include more integration of religious and spiritual issues.  Even in the context of attending a private, church-affiliated liberal arts college, Augustana students seem to be more likely to think that the religious and spiritual worldview sphere should be relegated to a private domain and not brought into the classroom or the public sphere.

The combination of these findings suggests to me that the groundwork may be in place for us to more explicitly take ownership of interfaith literacy as a critical element of intercultural competence and make it more a part of the mainstream learning experience.  This groundwork seems to be in place not because the data suggests that students are asking for a heightened emphasis on interfaith literacy, but because we have data to show students that their experiences have impacted their own growth.  In my mind, this might be one way of shifting their own engagement in this conversation – by showing them that they have already benefitted from the thing that they think they shouldn’t do.

Make it a good day,

Mark

 

Rankings, Schmankings

Since the US News & World Report rankings came out last week, a number of people have asked me, “What do you make of this stuff?”  To be frank, my attitude toward college rankings in general swings from mild amusement to seething frustration.  Thankfully, I’m not alone in this opinion – Slate just published a particularly humorous dig at the whole rankings hubbub.  Nonetheless, I thought it might be helpful to share a couple of observations from this year’s ranking of Augustana College by digging a little deeper into the mean and method behind this particular “madness.”

  1. US News & World Report continues to focus almost entirely on inputs and perception instead of outcomes.  So factors like students’ incoming ACT/SAT scores, the proportion of applications accepted for admission, several measures of financial resources, and the opinion of other college presidents largely determine the final rankings.  As a result, the wealthiest colleges tend to sit atop the rankings.  US News  has doubled, tripled, and quadrupled down on this approach, so don’t expect it to change any time soon.
  2. Even though the ranking number is the one that everyone seems to pay attention to, all of the ranks are derived from an absolute score that ranges from 0 to 100.  With more than 250 colleges to rank in our category of national liberal arts colleges, you can imagine that there are a lot of ties.  This year, Augustana’s absolute score (54) is exactly the same as it was last year.  Despite the absence of change, our rank dropped from 97 last year to 100 this year on the list.
  3. Moreover, we sit within a cluster of 21 other colleges that scored within two points on either side of our absolute score (56-52).  These schools range in ranking from 94 to 110.  It’s a good group of colleges with several names that you’d recognize as institutions with which we often compare ourselves.  And it makes sense to think that we would share a lot of similarities with some of these schools, after all we’ve been sitting within spitting distance of each other for almost 30 years.

But since the US News rankings were first conceived, a lot has changed.  We have fundamentally altered the way that we assess ourselves, shifting from determining our self-worth based on the inputs that US News uses to assessing our educational effectiveness based upon the results or outcomes of an Augustana education.  So is there anything from the US News rankings that might be worth noting?

There is one interesting tidbit that isn’t listed on the US News web site but is available to institutions upon request.  US News creates rank scores for each of the eight sub-categories (peer assessment, financial resources, graduation and retention, student selectivity, faculty resources, alumni giving, graduation rate performance, and high school counselor opinion) that they combine to create a total score.  Most (6 out of 8) sub-category rankings fall between 80 and 134.  Our financial resources rank (160) is a bit lower than the rest.  All this, especially our comparatively lower financial resource rank, makes the final sub-category ranking all that much more interesting and, dare I say, impressive.

The one sub-category left is called Graduation Rate Performance.  This sub-category recognizes any potential difference between a schools’ predicted graduation rate (based on the characteristics of the incoming students and the financial where-with-all of the institution) and the actual graduation rate in a particular year.  The larger the positive gap between the predicted and actual graduation rate, the higher the rank score – reflecting the degree to which the institution is making the most of its capacities to educate and graduate its students.

  • What was our predicted graduation rate?    67%
  • What was our actual graduation rate?          78%

Augustana’s graduation rate performance rank this year is 19.  In other words, we took a decent, albeit imperfect, group of about 640 students and graduated about 70 more of them than would be expected given the average incoming academic preparation and family financial status of the group.

That seems to be worth celebrating.

Is there anything else worth noting in the US News rankings?  Not really.

Make it a good day,

Mark

The Counter-Intuitive Predictors of Students’ Sense of Belonging on Campus

One of the main reasons we encourage freshmen to find and join student groups that fit their interests is because we believe that connecting freshmen to other students based on a common interest helps speed the acclimation process and leads to a stronger sense of belonging on campus.  After all, the dominant theories in the study of college students assert that student involvement in campus life matters for a host of important reasons and lead to higher rates of persistence and learning.

One way to track our student involvement in campus life is to gather information about our students’ participation patterns in co-curricular activities.  Thus, we included several questions in the new end-of-the-first-year survey that ask about the degree to which freshmen found student groups or clubs that fit their interests and whether they participated in a variety of activities such as greek organizations, intercollegiate athletics, music ensembles, or any other student club or organization.

One assumption we make about involvement’s impact on persistence and learning is that the driving factor exists simply in the act of becoming and staying involved.  In other words, we often don’t think so much about the nature of that involvement (i.e., the nature of the interactions and experiences that occur as a result of that involvement) as we do about the mere existence or absence of it.  If you think you smell a hint of foreshadowing here . . . breathe deeply (sorry for the mixed metaphor!).

When we analyzed the data we collected from our freshmen last spring, we tested these two potentially competing hypotheses.  Essentially, was a students’ sense of belonging on campus primarily impacted by the existence of involvement or by the nature of that involvement?  The results might surprise you (cue more ominous foreshadowing music).

Of all the questions asking about the existence of involvement (whether they participated in athletics, music groups, student clubs, greek organizations, and the degree to which they found student groups that fit their interests), the only one that produced a statistically significant positive effect on our students’ sense of belonging was athletic participation.

The rest of the measures of the existence of involvement . . . nothing, nada, zippo.

However, several questions that asked about the nature of students’ interaction with others on campus – an unavoidable byproduct of involvement – produced statistically significant effects even after taking into account the existence of student involvement in all of the ways assessed above.

  • My out-of-class experiences have helped me develop a deeper understanding of how I relate to others.
  • About how often have you had serious conversations with students from a different race/ethnicity, economic background, religious beliefs, or political opinions than your own?

Interestingly, several questions that asked about students’ curricular experiences also impacted students’ sense of belonging on campus.

  • In your courses, how often were you asked to examine the strengths and weaknesses of your own views on a topic or issue?
  • How often did faculty ask you to apply your learning to address societal problems or issues?

There appears to me to be some possibly important overlap between these two sets of questions.  All four of these questions ask about experiences that require empathy, suspending judgement, and learning to see issues through a perspective other than one’s own.  I wonder if these kinds of experiences may actually perpetuate a deeper, more meaningful sense of belonging and fit.  Simply finding a group of people who already share one’s interests suggests that the individual looking to fit in doesn’t need to do anything to make the fit happen.  As a result, they don’t have to commit to grow or change.  I suspect this allows them to maintain something of an emotional escape hatch (e.g., “if this doesn’t work out, so what”).  But if fitting in necessitates a measure of empathy, suspension of judgement, and perspective-taking, I wonder if these behaviors also increase the likelihood of commitment, thereby producing a deeper sense of belonging and fit.

The fact that an increase in any of these four experiences paralleled an increase in a student’s sense of belonging on campus suggests to me that the nature of a student’s involvement may be more important than the mere existence of it.  Thus, encouraging someone to find and join a student group that shares similar interests, while it might be beneficial on some level, may not necessarily be enough to develop a deeper sense of belonging on campus.  Instead, it appears that interactions that force students to encounter and interact across some dimension of difference toward a successful conclusion can play a critical part in our students’ capacity for fitting in at Augustana College.  Like many of the other issues we are thinking about as we focus more precisely on student learning, when we talk about maximizing student involvement, let’s remember to ask ourselves, “To what end?  What do we want our students to learn and how do we want them to grow as a result of this experience?”

Make it a good day,

Mark

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