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Essay calling for study of the most valuable qualities of liberal arts colleges

Most of us read that Sweet Briar College, a small, private women’s liberal arts college in rural Virginia, announced it would close this summer. The closure can be explained through various factors and reasons: ever-growing deferred maintenance, lack of internship options for students, a rural setting, diminishing public interest in liberal education and single-sex education, an endowment made up of mostly restricted funds, and the simultaneous effects of decreasing enrollments resulting in higher rates of tuition discounts and years of dipping into the unrestricted endowment to cover operating costs.

To be sure, Sweet Briar is not closing due to an absence of quality. Indeed, Sweet Briar was one of the colleges in Project DEEP (Documenting Effective Educational Practice), run by the N.S.S.E. (the National Survey of Student Engagement), which identified institutions excelling at education. Sweet Briar’s fate should worry anyone concerned with maintaining a high quality of undergraduate education in America because some of Sweet Briar’s peers are endangered.

Of the 2,353 Title IV four-year public and private postsecondary degree-granting institutions in the United States listed by a 2013-14 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, liberal arts colleges comprise about 4 percent. And yet research indicates that these institutions do extraordinary things typically not found in any other institution type.

Data supporting this claim of quality can be found in multiple studies (outlined and hyperlinked below), and it deserves some attention because such dedication to uncompromised quality in a close academic community falls on deaf ears in our national conversation that focuses primarily on quantity, scale and technology.

In an address to the American Council of Learned Societies, George Kuh, director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment at Indiana University at Bloomington as well as the founder of N.S.S.E., described these colleges as “built to engage.” Kuh found that students attending these institutions tended to not just obtain new knowledge but also “tend to gain more in intellectual and personal development.” Likewise, graduates of these institutions also tended to be more civically engaged later in life. In other words, liberal education’s commitment to educating the whole person, at least in these contexts, represents both an ideal and an actual reality.  

Accordingly, liberal arts colleges also have the highest rates of alumni satisfaction when compared to other institution types in studies by the Annapolis Group and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, respectively. Students graduate from these colleges feeling positive about their educational experience, the attention from faculty and staff, and their overall development as adults. Alumni are satisfied despite attending institutions that typically carry the highest price tag in America.

Given such positive experiences in undergraduate education, it is no surprise then that on a per capita basis there are more liberal arts college graduates obtaining advanced degrees and doctorates than other institution types, according to Kuh (see also a report from the College Solution for a list of specific institutions). Some may interpret such data to indicate that these graduates need advanced degrees to find employment. Another interpretation would be that these colleges better prepare students for the levels of thinking required for completing advanced degrees of study. While both may have some truth, these data indicate that such graduates are then obtaining jobs requiring more advanced degrees as well.

We can also consider how these colleges measure up to the research on evidenced-based best practices of undergraduate education. For example, a study from the University of Iowa and the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College by Ernest T. Pascarella, Ty M. Cruce, Gregory C. Wolniak and Charles Blaich found “evidence supporting the contention that in comparison with other institutions, liberal arts colleges do, in fact, foster a broad range of empirically vetted good practices in undergraduate education.” Decades of research support our understanding of best practices and give evidence as to how these practices promote positive student development. From Pascarella et al’s study, examples of best practices include:

  1. Student-faculty contact
  2. Cooperation among students
  3. Active learning/time on task
  4. Prompt feedback to students
  5. High expectations
  6. Quality of teaching received
  7. Influential interactions with other students

Another best practice of undergraduate education associated with positive student outcomes relates to student experiences with diversity. A study by Paul Umbach, a professor of higher education at North Carolina State, and Kuh found that liberal arts college students “are significantly more likely than their counterparts at other types of institutions to engage in diversity-related activities and to report greater gains in understanding people from diverse backgrounds.” The research linking best practices of education and liberal arts colleges makes sense given that these schools intentionally cultivate small, engaging academic communities with single-mission commitments to undergraduate education in the liberal education paradigm.

To date, the most thorough summary of the research on both liberal arts colleges and liberal education may be found in "Liberal Arts Colleges and Liberal Arts Education: New Evidence on Impacts." While this report remains too large to summarize in the current article, the authors raise an important distinction based on findings that both confirm and challenge the notion that liberal arts colleges are the best at undergraduate education. The confirming data indicate that students at liberal arts colleges typically experience high-quality teaching and an engaging institutional climate through best practices. This makes sense for these institutions, as they also typically spend more on students than other institution types. Yet it challenges this notion insofar as attending these schools does not guarantee that a student experiences such high quality, therefore these institutions were not found to guarantee better student outcomes (e.g. grades, higher scores on standardized learning assessments). After all, just as a professor cannot force a student to learn, an institution simply being a liberal arts college does not ensure quality. The evidence, however, remains that these colleges typically embody the best of undergraduate education.  

Despite all of these indicators of quality, these institutions are disappearing. In his 1994 "Liberal Arts Colleges: Thriving, Surviving, or Endangered," David Breneman determined that there existed 212 institutions that qualified as true liberal arts colleges. To define liberal arts colleges, Breneman first utilized the Carnegie Foundation’s previous classifications of liberal arts colleges I and II and then added his own educational and economic criteria. Educationally, colleges must have few or no graduate programs and must award at least 40 percent of their degrees in the liberal arts and sciences.

These criteria effectively eliminated small comprehensive universities as well as professional or preprofessional colleges. Economically, colleges required similar financial models of revenue and cost in order for Breneman to compare institutions. Vicky Baker, Roger Baldwin and Sumedha Makker reran Breneman’s study and found that after 18 years, 137 institutions remained. For my own dissertation research on liberal education under the mentorship of Breneman, I also reran the study using Baker et al’s sample two years later in 2014 and found that only 103 qualified. After Sweet Briar’s closing, 102 will remain.

While some liberal arts colleges with sizable endowments -- Amherst, Swarthmore and Wellesley Colleges, among others -- will be able to weather storms better than others, I expect this trend will continue in the foreseeable future. Colleges will either close, transform into professional schools, or become small comprehensive universities. In the meantime, we need to study these institutions while we still can so that our understanding of the best model of undergraduate education does not in turn disappear. Further research is needed to explore what precisely faculty and staff do to bring out these positive outcomes, what forms of assessment might be best suited for such intense and nuanced communities of learning, and how essential human-to-human interaction is the learning and development process.

The uncertain future of the liberal arts model serves to bring its most valuable and essential components into clear focus. The foundations of mentorship-style learning with faculty and staff through a breadth and depth of study, community engagement, and residential living on which the model is built must not be allowed to fade along with the popularity of liberal arts colleges. It should, at least, set our standard for undergraduate education as well as inform and enrich our work in other sectors of education, be it other institution types or emerging postsecondary models. After all, how else will we know if other models of undergraduate education can measure up to the high ideals and practices associated with liberal arts colleges?

Jason Jones, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Higher Education, is completing a dissertation on liberal education.

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A professor learns lessons from a bad semester (essay)

A confluence of events kept Kevin Brown out of the classroom for almost a month last semester. Here's what he learned about his students, his colleagues and his teaching.

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Colleges start new programs

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Essay criticizes idea of adding the arts to push for STEM education

The last few years have brought a call from some quarters to update the STEM acronym -- for science, technology, engineering and mathematics -- to STEAM, with the A standing for arts. On the surface, such a move seems harmless. What’s another letter, right? But in my view, STEM should stay just as it is, because education policy has yet to fully embrace the concept it represents -- and that concept is more important than ever.

No one -- least of all me -- is suggesting that STEM majors should not study the arts. The arts are a source of enlightenment and inspiration, and exposure to the arts broadens one’s perspective. Such a broad perspective is crucial to the creativity and critical thinking that is required for effective engineering design and innovation. The humanities fuel inquisitiveness and expansive thinking, providing the scientific mind with larger context and the potential to communicate better.

The clear value of the arts would seem to make adding A to STEM a no-brainer. But when taken too far, this leads to the generic idea of a well-rounded education, which dilutes the essential need and focus for STEM.

STEM is the connecting of four separate, but similar, dots. The acronym was born in the early 2000s, when the National Science Foundation sought to promote a national conversation about the merits of pulling related areas out of their silos and teaching them in a more multidisciplinary way. Math and science were already well established in education. The thinking was that technology and engineering instruction was far less prevalent in public schools, despite society being dependent on both.

Over time, the four letters have served as the spark to rekindle America’s commitment to an innovation economy. The basis of that commitment is a larger, more skilled workforce in STEM areas. Policy from the Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations has emphasized the importance of preparing and encouraging more youth to pursue these fields at a time when they were less inclined to do so, and to provide more support and training for teachers in the subjects.

We cannot afford to be distracted from that strategy. A survey of executives by Business Roundtable last year revealed that 4 out of 10 companies still find that at least half of their entry-level job applicants don’t even have the basic skills in STEM. Yet these companies will have to replace nearly 1 million U.S. employees with basic STEM literacy (and 635,000 with advanced skills in STEM) in the next five years. This means that STEM education needs ongoing commitment and resources.

I like to think of STEM the same way I think of stem cells -- STEM is foundational. Just as stem cells are a platform for the growth of other tissues, STEM is a platform for many careers. It is too valuable to our nation’s future to be put at risk.

Gary S. May is dean of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering.

Faculty members should drive efforts to measure student learning (essay)

Lumina Foundation recently released an updated version of its Degree Qualifications Profile (D.Q.P.), which helps define what students should know and what skills they should master to obtain higher education degrees.

This revised framework marks a significant step in the conversation about measuring students’ preparedness for the workforce and for life success based on how much they've learned rather than how much time they’ve spent in the classroom. It also provides a rare opportunity for faculty members at colleges and universities to take the lead in driving long-overdue change in how we define student success.

The need for such change has never been stronger. As the economy evolves and the cost of college rises, the value of a college degree is under constant scrutiny. No longer can we rely on piled-up credit hours to prove whether students are prepared for careers after graduation. We need a more robust -- and relevant -- way of showing that our work in the classroom yields results.

Stakeholders ranging from university donors to policy makers have pushed for redefining readiness, and colleges and universities have responded to their calls for action. But too often the changes have been driven by the need to placate those demanding reform and produce quick results. That means faculty input has been neglected.

If we’re to set up assessment reform for long-term success, we need to empower faculty members to be the true orchestrators.  

The D.Q.P. provides an opportunity to do that, jelling conversations that have been going on among faculty and advisers for years. Lumina Foundation developed the tool in consultation with faculty and other experts from across the globe and released a beta version to be piloted by colleges and universities in 2011. The latest version reflects feedback from the field, based on their experience with the beta version -- and captures the iterative, developmental processes of education understood by people who work with students daily.

Many of the professionals teaching in today’s college classrooms understand the need for change. They’re used to adapting to ever-changing technologies, as well as evolving knowledge. And they want to measure students’ preparedness in a way that gives them the professional freedom to own the changes and do what they know, as committed professionals, works best for students.

As a tool, the D.Q.P. encourages this kind of faculty-driven change. Rather than a set of mandates, the D.Q.P. is a framework that invites them to be change agents. It allows faculty to assess students in ways that are truly beneficial to student growth. Faculty members don't care about teaching to the assessment; they want to use what they glean from assessments to help improve student learning.

We’ve experienced the value of using the D.Q.P. in this fashion at Utah State University. In 2011, when the document was still in its beta version, we adopted it as a guide to help us rethink general education and its connection to our degrees and the majors within them. 

We began the process by convening disciplinary groups of faculty to engage them in a discussion about a fundamental question: “What do you think your students need to know, understand and be able to do?” This led to conversations about how students learn and what intellectual skills they need to develop.

We began reverse engineering the curriculum, which forced us to look at how general education and the majors work together to produce proficient graduates. This process also forced us to ask where degrees started, as well as ended, and taught us how important advisers, librarians and other colleagues are to strong degrees.

The proficiencies and competencies outlined in the D.Q.P. provided us with a common institutional language to use in navigating these questions. The D.Q.P.’s guideposts also helped us to avoid reducing our definition of learning to course content and enabled us to stay focused on the broader framework of student proficiencies at various degree milestones.

Ultimately the D.Q.P. helped us understand the end product of college degrees, regardless of major: citizens who are capable of thinking critically, communicating clearly, deploying specialized knowledge and practicing the difficult soft skills needed for a 21st-century workplace.

While establishing these criteria in general education, we are teaching our students to see their degrees holistically. In our first-year program, called Connections, we engage students in becoming "intentional learners" who understand that a degree is more than a major. This program also gives students a conceptual grasp of how to use their educations to become well prepared for their professional, personal and civic lives. They can explain their proficiencies within and beyond their disciplines and understand they have soft skills that are at a premium.

While by no means a perfect model, what we’ve done at Utah State showcases the power of engaging faculty and staff as leaders to rethink how a quality degree is defined, assessed and explained. Such engagement couldn’t be more critical.

After all, if we are to change the culture of higher learning, we can't do it without the buy-in from those who perform it. Teachers and advisers want their students to succeed, and the D.Q.P. opens a refreshing conversation about success that focuses on the skills and knowledge students truly need.

The D.Q.P. helps give higher education practitioners an opportunity to do things differently. Let’s not waste it.

Norm Jones is a professor of history and chairman of general education at Utah State University. Harrison Kleiner is a lecturer of philosophy at Utah State.

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Concerns on Academic Integrity at Stanford

Stanford University has released a letter to the faculty from Provost John Etchemendy about an "unusually high number of troubling allegations" about academic dishonesty during the fall quarter. "Among a smattering of concerns from a number of winter courses, one faculty member reported allegations that may involve as many as 20 percent of the students in one large introductory course," the letter said. It urged faculty members to be mindful of their "role in helping students understand the seriousness of academic dishonesty."

Blogs and essays can complement but not replace each other, study finds

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U. of Michigan researcher finds that different formats for assignments result in notably different qualities of writing.

Essay on the problems of American ignorance of the world

Among all the seemingly intractable crises Americans face in the world today, none is so serious as their utter unfamiliarity with that world. It makes every specific overseas problem virtually impossible for us to deal with confidently or competently.

Whether motivated by exceptionalism, isolationism, triumphalism or sheer indifference -- probably some of each over time -- the United States has somehow failed to equip a significant percentage of its citizenry with the basic information necessary to follow international events, let alone participate in formulating and executing the foreign policy that is an essential component of self-government in a healthy modern democracy.

This condition reflects the basic inadequacy of the educational system at every level, when it comes to understanding the world we live in. Americans of all ages have long scored lower than citizens of other countries on geography and current-events awareness quizzes and shown a stunning inability even to locate major countries on the map, let alone develop an appreciation for their cultures or their roles in global affairs.

As we know, Americans do not tend to appreciate the importance of learning foreign languages, and that indifference is only increasing. According to a recent report from the Modern Language Association, college students in the United States are actually studying languages 6.7 percent less now than they did five years ago. Even enrollments in Spanish, America's second language, declined 8.2 percent in that period, in Arabic 7.5 percent and in Russian 17.9 percent. Admittedly, English is in ascendance as the international language of business and trade, but needless to say, Americans will not get away with waiting for all the world to learn it.

There was a period, not all that long ago, when, at least in “peacetime,” it seemed as if international issues could be left to a small cadre of experts in government and educational institutions. As the pundits told us, such matters played virtually no role in routine political discourse or in local and national elections -- and certainly not in the daily lives of most members of Congress or much of the public they represented. Indeed, for many years slots on the House Foreign Affairs Committee were difficult to fill; congressmen did not want to have to go home and explain why they were wasting their time in Washington on such matters.

One might have expected a shift in recent decades, if only out of a national desire to avoid repeating critical mistakes. But in the years following the end of the Cold War, the foreign affairs account in the federal budget was cut drastically and some news organizations proudly announced that they were closing overseas bureaus because of a lack of interest among their subscribers or viewers, not to mention their own financial adversities.

Today, incredibly, the situation seems worse. Thirteen and a half years after the shock of Sept. 11, a complex international environment feels ever more distant, unknowable and strange. Only a third of Americans are thought to hold passports -- compared to about 50 percent in Australia, more than 60 percent in Canada and some 80 percent in the United Kingdom. Study-abroad rates at American colleges and universities are, on average, stuck in the low single digits.

It is no wonder, then, that Americans find themselves easily and frequently bewildered by phenomena that spin quickly out of control -- the various ongoing crises in the Middle East; the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, among other former Soviet republics; the spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa; China’s recent public showdown with dissidents in Hong Kong and quieter ones in other regions; the catastrophic symptoms of climate change; and separatist movements in Scotland and Catalonia, to name a few. A basic lack of awareness and understanding among the public makes it even harder for policy makers to formulate positions that will attract widespread domestic support and perhaps influence the outcomes.

One of the recent manifestations of Americans’ confusion over world affairs was the wild fluctuation in public opinion with regard to whether the United States should intervene militarily in the Syrian civil war or become reinvolved in Iraq. The data are confusing, at best:

In May 2013, 68 percent of Americans surveyed told Gallup they felt the United States should not use force to attempt to end the conflict in Syria if diplomatic and economic efforts failed. Thirteen months later, in June 2014, 54 percent still said they opposed using military means to help the Iraqi government fend off the insurgents from the newly discovered Islamic State (or ISIS or ISIL), which was threatening to take over that country, while 45 percent now favored American air strikes there.

By August of last year, after the Islamic State had received substantial media coverage and begun to replace Al Qaeda in the public mind as the principal U.S. adversary in the region, support for air strikes had risen to 54 percent in the Washington Post-ABC News poll. In September, after the widespread circulation of grotesque videos of the beheading of American journalists, that number reached an astonishing level of 71 percent in the same poll -- hence, President Obama’s recent willingness and political capacity to take bolder steps.

It is difficult to know how much faith to place in any of those numbers, because in some of the surveys fewer than half of the respondents said they had actually been following the situation in the Middle East closely when they were interviewed. And for a time there was speculation that perhaps government spokespeople and media sources had it wrong -- that the Nusra Front or the Khorasan Group (even less familiar names) might actually be the worst actor in the mix, from an American perspective. What if we were fighting the wrong enemy or, worse, did not really know whom we were fighting?

Should we become more frightened, more resolute -- or, as many seem to do, just tune out?

There is, alas, no quick or easy cure for this fundamental problem. No number of urgent adult-education courses, live or online, will catch the country up anytime soon. And it is not as if a wave of American tourists or students should be encouraged to drop in on Syria or Iraq for impromptu fact-finding missions.

That is not the point. It is, rather, a broader familiarity with the world that is needed. It will take decades -- a generation or two -- for the United States as a nation to develop a deeper appreciation of the complex forces at work, such that popular attitudes are no longer subject to crass manipulation.

It may not be easy to persuade Americans, legitimately worried as they are over other matters at home, that every field of endeavor and every issue of public concern will soon have an international dimension, if it does not already -- or that continued ignorance of, or indifference toward, how other people see the world is a concrete threat to our own security and safety.

This will require nothing less than a national call to action. We are not dealing here with a partisan issue, and the concern is relevant for all economic strata and all social groupings in the United States. For a start, we will have to send many more young people to study abroad -- in high school, in college and in graduate and professional school -- and make sure that a significant number of them go farther afield than the traditional destinations in Europe. When they get wherever they are going, it is crucial that they live and study not just with other Americans, but also with local people of their own generation.

Meanwhile, back at home, more students will have to learn about the wider world from every perspective -- political, economic, anthropological and scientific -- whatever their intended careers.  The attainment of an international sensibility should be on any list of liberal education requirements. 

And yes, we should bring back old-fashioned language requirements, but teach those languages in a practical manner that assumes we will all use them in our daily work and social lives, not necessarily become foreign-literature scholars.

Above all, we must value the experiences and listen to the insights that young Americans bring home from overseas. They, in turn, will have to push their professors, their families and everyone else they encounter to be willing to learn from the way other societies and cultures conduct their lives and govern themselves.

Sanford J. Ungar, distinguished scholar in residence at Georgetown University, recently stepped down after 13 years as president of Goucher College in Baltimore, where every undergraduate is now required to study abroad.

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Reed college student draws attention when he says he was banned from class due to comments on rape

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Reed student creates stir by saying that he was banned from class after disputing statistic on sexual assault. The college, though, says he had a pattern of behavior that was disruptive for reasons unrelated to what he was arguing.

Essay on the flaws of the PARCC tests

Inspired by all of the discussion and controversy over the new PARCC standardized tests for students and as a researcher of people's technology uses, I recently took part of the computerized PARCC fourth-grade math practice test. Even after going through the tutorial explaining the interface, I found myself occasionally as preoccupied with the system as I was with figuring out the math problems. 

PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, proposes to test children's knowledge of language arts and mathematics. What its computerized version really does, however, is mix up students' math and language skills with their computer skills. 

Parents and teachers across the country have been debating the value of the PARCC tests that children are taking at their schools this month. The heated discussions range from the value of such standardized testing to technical glitches with the computer system. What is often overlooked, however, is an additional important challenge of the computerized test: varying technology skills among students that will likely affect their scores and mix math and literary assessment with technology assessment.

You may be thinking that I just don't get computerized testing because I am an adult and not a tech-savvy child who grew up in the Internet age. 

Assuming that children are naturally tech savvy, however, is a mistake. My research over the past decade, along with that of others, suggests that students' family background is very much related to their abilities, with those from less privileged backgrounds less skilled at using the Internet. 

Even among more privileged populations, plenty of variation in skills exists. Accordingly, using unfamiliar computer systems has a good chance of negatively influencing test scores measuring students' math and literary skills. 

For two decades I have been studying whether people can improve their lives through their use of the Internet. In this case, it may have the opposite effect. As a researcher on the relationship between Web-use skills and socioeconomic status, I have found that the Internet may be perpetuating inequalities as much as it has the potential to alleviate them. 

The PARCC Web site offers a tutorial so that users can familiarize themselves with the system. The tutorial was likely compiled with care, but that does not make the system as a whole intuitive. 

Presumably one advantage of such a system is to help with automated grading. After solving a few of the grade-four math questions, I decided to see how the system handled my responses. I was told that the system was unable to score my response of 4½ to one particular question. The answer key listed 18/4 as the correct response. While 4½ equals 18/4, the system seemed unable to figure that out immediately. A computer system that cannot figure out that 4½ is the same as 18/4 does not leave much confidence in said system. And it does not leave much confidence in the test that 4½ may not be an acceptable response when nothing from the system suggested that reporting the answer in such a format was a problem.

Of course, being able to translate math and language skills to different media is an important skill itself. But we should test for topical knowledge in a way that does not blend that knowledge with technology skills so that we know specifically where students are excelling and where they may be falling behind. 

After all, a poor math score using the computerized version of PARCC could be due to the unfamiliar and at times confusing nature of the computer interface, it could be the result of poor math skills, or perhaps both. By conflating computer skills with math skills, students, parents, teachers and schools are left without knowing whether more resources need to be poured into math training or computer skills support. To know where resources are most needed in the educational system, it is important for assessment tools to test one skill at a time.

If PARCC is the way to move forward, it is imperative that schools offer the option of taking the test on paper, a plan that some districts have implemented. Not only does the computer-based system generally confuse different types of skills, but lack of computer skills are most likely to disadvantage those from already less privileged backgrounds. A system meant to educate all should not be based on tests that disadvantage some children from the get-go.

Eszter Hargittai is the Delaney Family Professor in the Communication Studies Department and faculty associate of the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University. She is a past fellow of The OpEd Project.

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