What Do Our Athletes Really Learn?

Intercollegiate athletics programs, which are only justifiable on our campuses if they can offer significant learning experiences, should be assessed for their educational impact, argues Michael G. Bowen.

October 26, 2016
 
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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.

Bio

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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