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Intercollegiate athletics should be assessed for their educational impact (essay)

Assessing students’ learning against desired outcomes in their degree programs -- that is, determining what students can actually do at the end of their studies -- is a controversial but established practice at most, if not all, colleges and universities today. Armed with such data, faculty members and administrators can work together to make changes they hope will improve student success.

Given how universities thus operate today, it makes sense that intercollegiate athletics programs, which are only justifiable on our campuses if they can offer significant learning experiences, should also be assessed for their educational impact beyond students’ grade point averages, academic progress rates and graduation success rates. Doing so would be consistent with the written mission statements of our institutions and the National Collegiate Athletic Association. As in the rest of academe, it seems important to discover where athletics programs are successful, or not, in order to identify problems and implement possible solutions.

How would colleges and universities go about this? Well, first, of course, they would need to clearly specify the intended learning outcomes resulting from students participating in intercollegiate athletics. To do this, an institution might begin by looking for performance improvements on outcome variables traditionally cited as reasons for offering students participation opportunities in sports. For example, an institution might choose to measure the extent that athletics builds and teaches character; good sportsmanship; teamwork; health, physical fitness and safety; social skills; the necessity of hard work and perseverance to achieve success; and so on. All of these should be guided, in principle, by the university’s educational mission, as embodied in its formal mission statement.

Once the institution identifies the best possible student learning outcomes, faculty members and administrators could then devise the soundest possible methods to measure how student-athletes perform vis-à-vis the specified learning outcomes. They would also, of course, have to make decisions about how often to measure students’ performance other than at the beginning and end of the program.

After the students’ learning outcomes have been measured, the institution should then implement any necessary changes to the program to generate higher achievement. For example, if the outcomes data signal that students’ performance against intentions is poor, it would then need to devise and implement changes to increase students’ success.

Now, to help make the point here, and just for discussion purposes, let’s imagine that a sampling of the final learning outcomes data for student-athletes at your university indicate that:

  • A significant number of them were recruited having a strong sense of exaggerated entitlement that was reinforced and perhaps strengthened during the time they were athletes at the university. An example of how this possible learning outcome has been measured is the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s survey research on student-athlete social environments.
  • A large and possibly systemic graduation gap exists between certain demographic groups of student-athletes. Outcomes on this issue have been measured and widely reported, in summary and by university, in a study conducted by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida.
  • Student-athletes have maintained completely unrealistic expectations about a possible future professional athletic career. An example of how data on this outcome variable have been collected would be the NCAA’s sponsored GOALS Study of the Student-Athlete Experience.
  • Coaches have taught them by example that a “my way or the highway” style of leadership is the best way to work with, manage and control people. To measure this imagined outcome, personal interviews with athletes, coaches and administrators or surveys might provide insight into what participants have learned about leadership and leading from their coaches. Surveys that might be used or adapted for these purposes already exist in the social sciences.
  • Experience has taught them to act as though the ends (e.g., athletic directors and coaches who lose enough games will certainly get fired, and winning is thus the only thing that matters) fully justify the means (e.g., performance-enhancing drug use and other forms of breaking and bending the rules are OK, even sometimes necessary for winning, as long as one doesn’t get caught). As in the previous example, carefully designed personal interviews or surveys can offer insight into student-athletes’, coaches’ and administrators’ values and ethics as they prepared for winning intercollegiate athletics competitions.
  • A significant percentage of students had suffered predictable brain injuries and potential long-term brain damage in the course of their participation in college football. To provide measurement on these outcome variables, there is a great deal of data collection underway, and a number of studies now getting published, that are asking tough questions about the nature and effects of being concussed, as well as the effects of repeated nonconcussive body blows on brain health. The results of this growing body of research are increasingly troublesome.

Obviously, no institution would be happy about receiving such imagined, and in some cases unconscionable, results -- particularly if it is clear, and feels strongly enough about, what educational benefits it intends for the students who are competing as athletes in its name and is committed to its mission.

Perhaps it is thus time that our colleges and universities, concerned about their integrity and responsibilities as educational institutions, begin to formally and transparently assess what students are actually learning and otherwise gaining as participants in the sports programs offered by our athletics departments -- this, of course, within the larger realities of the current intercollegiate athletics system. That system, largely driven by dollars at the all-important business level these days, and the desire to earn or keep an athletic scholarship or develop the abilities to play professionally at the student level, also includes and inspires sports programs for prospective athletes beginning in their youth and continuing through high school.

In this effort, assessing the educational benefits of student participation in intercollegiate athletics should prove to be a natural extension of the assessment policies and procedures already in place to meet the various accreditation and other (e.g., current and potential NCAA) mandates. I would hope that all universities would be willing to take on this additional work because, first, that will correct a significant oversight by assessing what student-athletes learn by participating in their sports and then by “closing the loop” to improve student learning. Second, it will allow institutions to recognize the urgent need to limit or eliminate, to the extent possible, very tangible threats to their integrity. Such threats have been made all too real by the commercial risks and excesses, academic scandals, Title IX issues, and other concerns associated with intercollegiate athletics programs.

It thus seems, at least to me, that as institutionally sponsored avocational educational activities, college sports, within the larger context of student-athletes’ more important nonsports academic work, clearly need to be subject to the same rigorous assessment processes as all of our other academic programs.

We should fully appreciate and consider our students’ participation in intercollegiate athletics as an extracurricular educational activity, and as such an important part of their collegiate learning and growth experiences. If we do so, our institutions, the athletics conferences and the NCAA might then be willing to accept whatever difficult changes faculty members and administrators, working together, decide need to be made to the system to bring our athletics programs into better compliance with our foundational educational missions -- and ultimately the public trust we serve.

Michael G. Bowen is a member of the marketing department faculty at the University of South Florida and serves as chair of the steering committee for the Coalition on Intercollegiate Athletics, an organization representing elected faculty governance bodies in activities related to the administration and governance of intercollegiate athletics. 

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Teaching controversial topics in the age of microaggressions, trigger warnings and tweeting (essay)

Teaching Today

How can professors best introduce provocative material in the classroom in an age of trigger warnings, microaggressions and tweeting? Michael Bugeja tackles the issue.

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Colleges start new academic programs

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  • East Central University, in Oklahoma, is starting a master’s program on water policy.
  • New York University is adding a social impact, innovation and investment specialization in its master of public administration degree in public and nonprofit management and policy.

New America Paper on Predictive Analytics

New America today released a paper that analyzes the use of data to predict student success, so-called predictive analytics. The practice, which is spreading rapidly, allows colleges to better intervene when students struggle, helping them chart a more direct line to graduation and better enabling the use of customized digital learning tools.

However, the use of predictive analytics also comes with risks, the think tank warned, including privacy concerns and a heightened possibility of discrimination, such as by profiling and discouraging capable students.

“There are a number of examples of colleges using predictive data to make inroads in student success or operational functions. But that doesn’t mean we can or should turn a blind eye to the possibility that using this technology can go badly,” Manuela Ekowo, policy analyst with New America’s Education Policy Program and the report's co-author, said in a written statement.

Group releases draft quality standards for competency-based education

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Group of colleges releases voluntarily standards for competency-based education, which Education Department official says could help prevent the rise of bad actors.

Washington U Ends Use of Cats in Medical Training

Washington University in St. Louis on Monday announced that it was ending the use of cats in teaching medical students how to insert breathing tubes, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported. Animal rights groups have protested the university's use of cats in this way, noting that the university was the last to do so.

A statement from the medical school said, “After careful consideration and a significant investment in its simulation center, Washington University School of Medicine now will provide neonatal intubation training using only mannequins and advanced simulators …. Improvements in the simulators make this possible. Therefore, the university has made the decision to no longer rely on anesthetized cats in training health care professionals to perform these life-saving intubation procedures.”

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Nike Co-Founder Gives U of Oregon $500 Million

The University of Oregon on Tuesday announced that it would receive a $500 million gift from Phil Knight, Nike’s co-founder, and his wife, Penny. Oregon said the gift, which may be the largest ever received by a flagship public university, will be part of a $1 billion project to create a new science campus in Eugene. The largely donor-funded interdisciplinary campus will train scientists while also focusing on entrepreneurship and ties with business, said the university.

The new campus will consist of three new 70,000-square-foot buildings, a conceptual rendering of which appears at right.

“This is a seminal moment for the University of Oregon, an inflection point that will shape the trajectory of the university and this state for the next century and beyond,” Oregon’s president, Michael Schill, said in a written statement. “Thanks to this amazing and generous gift from Penny and Phil, we will aggressively recruit and hire talented new researchers to join our world-class faculty to amplify what we do best -- interdisciplinary scientific research.”

Schill said the Knights will now be the university’s largest academic donor. They had been the second largest. Phil Knight also has been a serious benefactor to Oregon’s football program. In 2014, USA Today reported that he had given more than $300 million to the university’s athletic department.

However, Knight has in the past spurned Oregon, his undergraduate alma mater. He is giving $400 million to Stanford University, where he earned an M.B.A., to support a scholarship program for graduate students.

In an interview, Schill said the Knights would not have given the new money if the university was still part of the now defunct Oregon University System, which the state dismantled in 2015. Independent governing boards now oversee the former system’s seven public universities.

The system played a “leveling” function across its various universities, Schill said, which would have complicated the university’s ambitious plans for the gift. “We never would have gotten this gift if we were part of the system,” he said.

In addition, Schill said the Knights wanted to see “stable leadership” at a university that has recently seen frequent turnover at the top.

Competency-based education's business model offers promise, report finds

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Competency-based education can save money for colleges and students, a new report finds, but the efficiency gains won't come easily or without worries about the impact on academic quality.

U Miami Settles Philosophy Harassment Case

The University of Miami has settled with a former graduate student of philosophy who alleged long-term sexual harassment by Colin McGinn, a professor of philosophy. In her high-profile lawsuit, the student claimed that McGinn used his position of power to gain her trust and “groomed” her for a sexual relationship -- including by inviting her to his office, offering her a research assistantship and asking her to participate in a “hand ritual” that involved prolonged physical contact. McGinn then began to send numerous sexually tinged emails, with lines from the book Lolita and demands for “unlimited hand strokes and full body grips,” according to the complaint. He allegedly kissed the student's feet, to which she responded by wearing sneakers to their meetings to avoid the unwanted kissing, and began demanding sex. McGinn allegedly threatened her for limiting contact over his escalating demands, saying via email, “I am quite forgiving. But this refusal to even meet with me to talk is quite unhelpful. The last thing I want to do is think badly of you, and you are much better off with my support than without it. So please think carefully about your actions.”

The student reported the professor’s actions as alleged violations of Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which prohibit sex discrimination in education, according to her complaint. But the university allegedly did not follow protocol for investigations under Title IX, such as by diverting her report to an informal investigation channel, rather than a formal one that would have guaranteed transparency about the status of her case. She alleged that procedural inconsistencies contributed to McGinn’s “academic assault” on her in retribution for her report, which included an email saying he’d be removing her name and any acknowledgment of her significant editorial contribution to a book he authored. He also allegedly sent letters to renowned colleagues at various institutions, saying he was being falsely accused by the student, whom he named. McGinn signed a resignation agreement in early 2013, according to the complaint, but was salaried and employed through the end of year, during which time he was permitted to supervise another female graduate student.

McGinn has argued that “hand job” was philosophical banter. The plaintiff also alleged that the university helped McGinn preserve his reputation while damaging hers, including by submitting a false charge to the Faculty Senate that McGinn had failed to report a consensual relationship, rather than a charge of sexual harassment. The plaintiff's attorney said this week that the case had been settled, and that all parties were prohibited from talking about it. The university did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

How to engage students in the classroom (essay)

Teaching Today

Jennifer Lundquist and Joya Misra provide suggestions for how faculty members can best connect with students in class.

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