It should not be controversial to believe that growing up involves becoming stronger, becoming better able to withstand whatever slings and arrows life throws at us and to pursue our goals even against difficult challenges. Surely the college years can and should play an important role in that growing-up process.
And yet, too often colleges treat their students like hatchlings not yet ready to leave the nest, as opposed to preparing and encouraging them to fly.
There are a variety of policies and practices that give students what most of them seem to want, but not necessarily what they most need. Speech codes and trigger warnings are two over-protecting initiatives that have received considerable attention in the higher education press and beyond.
So much has been written about the problems with speech codes that there is no need to belabor the subject at this point. Aside from the legal problems they can present with regard to free speech issues, especially in public higher education, they presume that students cannot withstand, much less respond with vigor to, speech they find objectionable. They also serve as an example of how formal codes and policies are no substitute for shared norms and values concerning how people should behave with one another.
The trigger warning movement, which has offered another field day for those on the lookout for opportunities to ridicule colleges and universities, advocates alerting students in advance to anything potentially upsetting in materials required for a course. Above and beyond being forewarned, some students would presumably be allowed to avoid an encounter with such materials altogether. Aside from this being an insult to the intelligence and good sense of students and faculty members alike, it also threatens to spoil the thrill of discovery. After all, would all first-time readers of Anna Karenina really want to be told ahead of time that [SPOILER ALERT!!] Anna commits suicide by throwing herself under a train at the end of the novel.
And then there is the rash of speaker cancellations due to student unwillingness to be exposed to “objectionable” views from a guest to the campus. Part of this particular problem might be addressed by recognizing that an essentially ritual occasion like a graduation ceremony may not be the best venue for a controversial, as opposed to celebratory, message. That issue taken care of, it should be easier to push back on other occasions against students who are being overly selective in their defense of free speech.
Student reactions to displays of racial insensitivity and prejudice can be considered in this context. The persistence of racism in our society and on our campuses is most certainly disturbing and unacceptable. At the same time, while a couple of students hanging a Confederate flag in their dormitory window or some students sending anonymous offensive tweets should not go without some critical response, incidents like these do not seem sufficient to put an entire campus into a state of turmoil. Surely, that is attributing too much power to the offenders and displaying too much vulnerability on the part of those they would offend.
It is important to consider which institutional customs may be at odds with the task at hand. There is, for example, the practice that has become common of designating certain areas of campus as “safe spaces” for certain kinds of activities and identities. Such language goes above and beyond the informal establishing of preferred comfortable gathering spaces. The implication is that certain students, depending on their identities or preferred activities, are “unsafe” on other areas of campus. This magnifies the sense of personal danger out of all proportion and interferes with students’ appreciation of what it means to be in real peril. It is an obstacle to the development of authentic courage.
The exponential growth of professional student services staff – which, to be sure, has had its positive side – has played into a tendency toward what we might see as self-infantilization on the part of students, who are now in the habit of seeking formal institutional support and approval for the kinds of activities they used to be capable of managing themselves. The most unusual example of this in my own years as a college president occurred when a student came to me seeking institutional recognition for the group she represented, which, as it happened, was composed of students favoring safe, consensual S&M sex. I inquired as to why it was not sufficient that her group was not being interfered with by the administration. That was apparently not good enough for her: she wanted a blessing from those in authority. I declined to provide the blessing, preferring to encourage her to see that she could manage without it.
This support-seeking seems to be of a piece with the prolonged umbilical role that many students maintain with their parents into their college years, calling them several times a day on their cellphones. The parents, for their part, remain overly involved with their children – at least those parents whose life circumstances allow them to do so. And so we have socialization in reverse: rather than helping their offspring achieve adulthood, those who should be the grown-ups are living the lives of their children along with them. Parental over-involvement can make the institutional exercise of authority all the more challenging when it rises to (or descends into) litigiousness.
So -- whose responsibility is it to address this and other aspects of campus culture that stand in the way of students developing the kind of resilience and strength that they need in life? First and foremost, this job, like so many other tough and often thankless tasks, falls to college and university presidents. A job far easier to assign than to fulfill.
Those of us who have moved on to less complicated lives must at least have the good grace to feel their pain. The task, however, must be taken up if the undergraduate experience is to be what it should be. Where presidents lead, staff will follow – and so even will the faculty, if a persuasively argued connection is made to the essential purposes of the institution.
Here, then, are the questions that must frame a president’s response when one of those increasingly common eruptions breaks out on campus: How high does this measure on the Richter scale of crises? How can I respond in a way that plays to my students’ strengths as opposed to their weaknesses? How can this serve as an occasion to increase their wisdom and self-confidence? How will I help them to grow up?
To invoke the timelessly wise words of the Rolling Stones: If students can’t always get what they want, if we try sometimes, we might just find they get what they need.
Judith Shapiro is a former faculty member and provost at Bryn Mawr College and former president of Barnard College.
The number of American medical schools with student-run free clinics has doubled in the last decade, to 75 percent of medical schools now operating them, according to a new study published in JAMA. The most common services provided by the clinics were outpatient adult medicine, health care maintenance, chronic disease management, language interpreters and social work. The most common diseases treated were diabetes and hypertension.
Adjunct faculty members at St. Michael’s College in Vermont voted to form a union affiliated with Service Employees International Union, they announced Monday. They’re the third group of adjuncts to vote to form unions under SEIU’s Adjunct Action campaign in recent weeks, after those at Burlington and Champlain colleges. About 75 percent of St. Michael’s eligible faculty participate in the vote, and the tally was 46 in favor and 26 opposed.
Anne Tewksbury-Frye, an adjunct faculty member at St. Michael’s College and Champlain College, said in a statement that the St. Michael’s union “will serve to improve best practices, and help us learn as educators and teachers in a way that will benefit our students directly.” Jeffrey Ayres, dean of the college, said St. Michael’s remained neutral throughout the process and encouraged all adjuncts to vote. “Adjuncts are an important part of the college in providing an excellent educational experience,” he said. Adjuncts teach about 20 percent of classes there.
Attention is how the mind prioritizes. The brain’s attention circuits stay busy throughout our waking hours, directing on a millisecond-by-millisecond basis where our limited cognitive resources are going to go, monitoring the information that floods into our senses, and shaping conscious experience. Attention is one of the most mysterious and compelling topics in cognitive science. Years of research on the subject are now paying off handsomely in the form of recent advances in our understanding of how these mechanisms work, on both theoretical and physiological levels. And the more we learn, the more we realize that these findings aren’t just important for theory-building -- they offer myriad practical applications that can help people function more effectively across all aspects of life. Teaching and learning is one area where attention research is especially useful for helping us get better at what we do.
In my book Minds Online: Teaching Effectively with Technology, I foreground attention as the starting point for everything designers of college-level online learning experiences should know about human cognition. Without attention, much of what we want students to accomplish -- taking in new information, making new connections, acquiring and practicing new skills -- simply doesn’t happen. And thus, gaining students’ focus is a necessary first step in any well-designed learning activity, whether online or face-to-face.
But how does this principle play out in a contemporary learning environment littered with tempting distractions -- the smartphones that accompany students to class, social networks that let us reach out to friends around the clock, the sites for games, media, and shopping that beckon every time we open our browsers? It’s especially concerning given how overly optimistic people tend to be about their ability to juggle different tasks. As psychologists Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simon eloquently explain in The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, human beings are notoriously bad at knowing what we can handle, attention-wise. Essentially, we lie to ourselves about what we notice and what we know, believing that we take in much more that we actually do.
For our students, this adds up to a serious drain on learning. And as learning environments become more complex, it is a drain they can’t afford. Consider, for example, some forms of blended learning in which students master foundational knowledge outside of class, usually through online work, then spend class time on focused application and interaction with instructors and classmates. A tightly scheduled and synchronized system like this can work beautifully, but doesn’t allow much margin of error for wasted time and scattered focus.
So what can we do about this situation? One strategy is to educate students about the limits of attention and just how much they miss when they choose to multitask. This, however, is easier said than done. Incorporating a learning module on attention is straightforward enough, but what would it take for such a module to be effective? First, it would need to be brief and to the point, reinforcing just a few crucial take-home messages without a great deal of history, theory or other background more appropriate to a full-length course in cognition. At the same time, quality control would be a major concern, especially for the module to be usable by an instructor without academic training in cognitive psychology. Just Googling for materials on attention brings up at least as much pseudoscience as reputable work, and without this solid scientific grounding, a module on the dangers of multitasking could easily devolve into a “Reefer Madness”-style experience, more laughable than persuasive.
Keeping these caveats firmly in mind, I’ve worked with my instructional designer colleague John Doherty to create a free-standing, one-shot online learning module called Attention Matters that instructors can drop into existing courses as an extra credit or required assignment. Besides being scrupulous about the science, John and I prioritized interactivity and use of the multimedia capabilities of online learning -- enabling us to show students, not just tell them, what distraction can do to performance in different contexts. Too many online learning activities consist essentially of glorified PowerPoint slides, so although there is a certain amount of text within our module, we put most of the emphasis on media, demonstrations, self-assessment and discussion.
As an example, we used a demonstration we called the “Selective Reading Challenge” to show students how attention mechanisms constantly filter incoming information, and also, how little we remember of information we don’t attend to. The demonstration consists of a page of text, alternating lines of bold and regular typefaces. Students are instructed to pay attention to only the bold lines, ignoring everything else, then proceed immediately to the next page. In the “to be ignored” text, we hide a few stimuli that may break through to awareness -- a couple of common names (Michael, Emily, Stephen, Christina), that if they belong to you, will probably pop out, as well as a few attention-grabbing emotional terms (911, murder). After completing the “selective reading,” students are invited to go back review the entire page of text -- bold and regular -- to see what they missed, and what they (likely) don’t remember at all even though it was well within the field of vision.
Other demonstrations illustrate the dramatic slowdown in processing that takes place when we multitask among competing activities. We present an online version of the classic “Stroop effect” to illustrate how distraction -- even from other mental processes going on at the same time -- can make a simple activity slow and inaccurate. The task involves naming the colors of a sequence of multicolored words -- not a difficult task, except when the words are themselves color names. red, green, blue, and so on – that contradict the colors they are printed in. Lastly, we pulled in several video clips from around the Web to drive home the multitasking point. One shows a prank “driving test” in which unsuspecting students were told to text while navigating a practice course, with predictably disastrous results. Another classic clip called “The Amazing Color Changing Card Trick,” created by psychologist Richard Wiseman, dramatically illustrates how attending to one part of a scene causes us to miss major developments going on in practically the same location.
These videos, activities and demonstrations form the anchor for brief, impactful student learning activities throughout the module. Students respond to discussion prompts asking them whether the demonstrations worked on them as predicted, and what they may mean for everyday attention. They also complete self-quizzes with feedback that target the different learning outcomes for each part of the module. At the end, they revisit what they have learned in a brief self-reflection and survey on attitudes and beliefs about attention and its importance for learning.
Attention Matters is an exciting project, offering us the opportunity to apply cognitive science in a novel and – we hope – useful way. The project also has a research component, through which we will be gathering data on student attitudes and beliefs about their own attentional capabilities, as well as on the frequency of different multitasking behaviors in their own lives.
There’s another important side to Attention Matters, and that has to do with the collaboration between an instructional design expert and a Subject Matter Expert, or SME. Much has been written about the virtues of instructional design experts’ pairing up with SMEs, and yet, such collaborations remain fairly rare within higher education. We hope that this project demonstrates the real benefits to be gained – perhaps motivating others to take the plunge.
It’s still too early to know what the long-term impacts of Attention Matters are going to be, or to predict exactly what we might discover about student attitudes and behaviors around multitasking. But I do foresee that as seismic change continues to occur in higher education, we will see more educators entering similar new territory – collaboratively creating focused, technologically delivered learning modules that live outside of traditional courses and use learning theory and cognitive science as the basis for design. And in our case, we may be able to add to our arsenal of strategies for getting students to become better stewards of their own attention.
In higher education circles, there is something of a feeding frenzy surrounding the issue of assessment. The federal government, due to release a proposed rating system later this fall, wants assessments to create ways to allow one to compare colleges and universities that provide “value”; accrediting organizations want assessments of student learning outcomes; state agencies want assessments to prove that tax dollars are being spent efficiently; institutions want internal assessments that they can use to demonstrate success to their own constituencies.
By far the main goal of this whirlwind of assessment is trying to determine whether an institution effectively delivers knowledge to its students, as though teaching and learning were like a commodity exchange. This view of education very much downplays the role of students in their own education, placing far too much responsibility on teachers and institutions, and overburdening everyone with a never-ending proliferation of paperwork and bureaucracy.
True learning requires a great deal of effort on the part of the learner. Much of this effort must come in the form of self-inquiry, that is, ongoing examination and reexamination of one’s beliefs and habits to determine which ones need to be revised or discarded. This sort of self-examination cannot be done by others, nor can the results of it be delivered by a teacher. It is work that a student must do for himself or herself.
Because of this, most of the work required in attaining what matters most in education is the responsibility of the student. A teacher can make suggestions, point out deficiencies, recommend methods, and model the behavior of someone who has mastered self-transformation. But no teacher can do the work of self-transformation for a student.
Current assessment models habitually and almost obsessively understate the responsibility of the student for his or her own learning, and, what is more consequential, overstate the responsibility of the teacher. Teachers are directed to provide clear written statements of observable learning outcomes; to design courses in which students have the opportunity to achieve those outcomes; to assess whether students achieve those outcomes; and to use the assessments of students to improve the courses so that attainment of the prescribed outcomes is enhanced. The standards do not entirely remove the student as an agent — the course provides the opportunity, while the student must achieve the outcomes. But the assessment procedures prescribe in advance the outcome for the student; the student can achieve nothing of significance, as far as assessment goes, except what the professor preordains.
This is a mechanical and illiberal exercise. If the student fails to attain the end, is it because the professor has not provided a sufficient opportunity? Or because, despite the opportunity being perfectly designed, the student, in his freedom, hasn’t acted? Or maybe the student attains the designed outcome due to her own ingenuity even when the opportunity is ill-designed. Or, heaven forbid, the student has after reflection rejected the outcome desired by the teacher in favor of another. The assessment procedure accurately measures the effectiveness of the curriculum precisely to the extent that the student’s personal freedom is discounted. To the extent that student’s freedom is acknowledged, the assessment procedure has to fail.
True learning belongs much more to the student than to the teacher. Even if the teacher spoon-feeds facts to the students, devises the best possible tests to determine whether students are retaining the facts, tries to fire them up with entertaining excitement, and exhibits perfectly in front of them the behavior of a self-actuated learner, the students will learn little or nothing important about the subject or about themselves if they do not undertake the difficult discipline of taking charge of their own growth. This being the case, obsessing about the responsibility of the teacher without paying at least as much attention to the responsibility of the student is hardly going to produce helpful assessments.
True learning is not about having the right answer, so measuring whether students have the right answers is at best incidental to the essential aims of education. True learning is about mastering the art of asking questions and seeking answers, and applying that mastery to your own life. Ultimately, it is about developing the power of self-transformation, the single most valuable ability one can have for meeting the demands of an ever-changing world. Meaningful assessment measures attainment in these areas, rather than in the areas most congenial to the economic metaphor.
How best to judge whether students have attained the sort of freedom that can be acquired by study? Demand that they undertake and successfully complete intellectual investigations on their own. The independence engendered by such projects empowers students to meet the challenges of life and work. It helps them shape lives worth living, arrived at through thoughtful exploration of the question: What kind of life do I want to make for myself?
What implications does this focus have for assessors? They should move away from easy assessments that miss the point to more difficult assessments that try to measure progress in self-transformation. The Gallup-Purdue Index Report "Great Jobs, Great Lives" found six crucial factors linking the college experience to success at work and overall well-being in the long term:
1. At least one teacher who made learning exciting.
2. Personal concern of teachers for students.
3. Finding a mentor
4. Working on a long-term project for at least one semester.
5. Opportunities to put classroom learning into practice through internships or jobs.
6. Rich extracurricular activities.
Assessors should thus turn all their ingenuity toward measuring the quality of the students’ learning environment, toward measuring students’ engagement with their teachers and their studies, and toward measuring activities in which students practice the freedom they have been working to develop in college. The results should be used to push back against easy assessments based on the categories of economics.
Higher education, on the other hand, would do well to repurpose most of the resources currently devoted to assessment. Use them instead to do away with large lecture classes — the very embodiment of education-as-commodity — so that students can have serious discussions with teachers, and teachers can practice the kind of continuous assessment that really matters.
Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College, in Annapolis.