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6 Ideas Whose Time Has Come

What might genuinely improve undergraduate education.

February 10, 2020

Some educational ideas have, quite deservedly, come and gone: programmed learning, iPads in the classroom, zero tolerance, learning styles.

Here today, gone tomorrow.

Others, like the quarter system, are slowly disappearing, not because they are necessarily wrong but for other reasons.

Still other ideas stick, like learning objectives, iPASS (integrated planning and advising for student success), experiential learning or universal design for learning.

Then there ideas whose status and future prospects remain unclear: gamification, authentic assessment, social-emotional learning and 21st-century literacies.

There are reasons why certain faddish ideas fade. The fad is imposed from the top down or popularized by vendors, rather than rising from genuine instructional needs. Or the fad required unreasonable resources or training, and produced few measurable results.

Then there are ideas who time should come: ideas that, if embraced fully, would genuine improve undergraduate education. Here are six.

1. Educating the whole student

This is the idea that colleges are responsible not simply for instilling skills or promoting cognitive development, but helping students develop along every dimension: socially, physically and ethically. Even students’ intellectual growth needs to be conceived more holistically. It should include their observational, listening and reading skills; their ability to think historically, sociologically and cross-culturally; and facility with scientific, statistical and computational thinking. It also involves critical thinking, analytic, evaluative, interpretive and metacognitive skills.

2. A more integrative education

Professional identity formation -- that is, developing caring, ethical and humanistic doctors and lawyers -- occupies an increasingly prominent role in medical and legal education. After all, to be a physician is not merely to be a technician; it is to be a well-rounded professional, with training in bioethical principles, the medical humanities, the complexities of the patient-doctor relationship, mindfulness and emotional awareness, communication skills, and resilience.

We might think similarly about undergraduate education. We should offer learning pathways that are more integrative, synergistic and coherent than those typically offered today. For all the talk about meta majors, learning communities and first-year experiences, interdisciplinarity and capstone courses, our curricula still tends to consist of a tripartite model -- of gen ed courses, majors and electives -- and disparate, disconnected courses that lack much intellectual coherence or thematic, theoretical, topical or methodological interconnections.

3. Personalizing the educational experience

Personalization and customization are among the hallmarks to the contemporary economy. Targeted, algorithm-driven ads, nudges and recommendations -- all are ways that corporations seek to shape behavior in a context of seemingly endless (and often debilitating) choice and options.

We all recognize, at some level, that a one-size-fits-all educational model serves many students poorly. Many need an education better tailored to meet their needs, prior learning and knowledge, and life circumstances. Catchphrases like differentiated instruction and personalized adaptive learning reflect an awareness of the importance of a more individualized approach to education. Through the use of diagnostics and low-stakes formative assessments, we have a growing capacity to adjust content, pace and learning trajectory to specific student needs. This is a capacity that we need to embrace.

4. Integrating high-impact practices and co-curricular activities into the student experience

There’s an unfortunate tendency to treat high-impact practices -- like internships or learning communities or mentored research -- as a kind of check-off list of best practices that accreditors expect to see. But it’s better to think of high-impact practices and co-curricular activities as ways to integrate particular skills into the undergraduate experience: inquiry, problem solving, collaboration, independent research, field-based learning and authentic expert practice.

These skills offer a way to prepare students for future careers without transforming undergraduate education into mere vocational training. These are skills that will be invaluable irrespective of a student’s future career.

5. A competency focus

For a host of reasons, competency-based education has gotten less traction than many expected. It turned out to be far harder to define the desired competencies or reliably validate them. The rigid rubrics associated with competency-based education struck many as mere certification and credentialing, at odds with the goals of a liberal education. The focus on practical, measurable outcomes tended to underplay the value of the actual educational experience. Then there was a scathing report by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Inspector General that decried the lack of substantive interaction with a faculty member.

But if adoption of competency-based education has slowed, the goal -- of bringing every student to a minimal viable level of mastery -- remains appealing. We do need greater transparency in terms of learning objectives and more valid and reliable ways of assessing student learning outcomes. The modes of assessment that we now rely upon -- the capricious “I know it when I see it” approach and the rather indiscriminate “do this and do that” to receive credit -- do little to tell if a student has truly achieved mastery and at what level.

6. Students as creators of knowledge

If undergraduates are to be more than passive recipients of information, if it our goal is to truly help students become expert practitioners, then they need more opportunities to become our partners and co-creators of knowledge. Term papers and lab reports are not enough. Already, some faculty members collaborate with their students in developing an app or producing an annotated text or creating instructional resources to share. Meanwhile, maker spaces proliferate.

If we reject the idea of students as consumers, then let's truly treat them as collaborators in their own learning.

Education has proven itself to be highly susceptible to passing fads, and that is bound to leave instructors skeptical, if not cynical. Catchphrases whose meaning is unclear abound: think algorithm-driven course planning tools or outcomes-focused education. The hype too often precedes the evidence base. And sometimes the very phrase means its opposite. Personalized learning too often means computer-based instruction, the mirror image of personalized teaching.

But some ideas deserve to be embraced if undergraduate education is to be truly learner and learning centered.

Steven Mintz is senior adviser to the president of Hunter College for student success and strategic initiatives.

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