The Teagle Liblog

January 24, 2011

Missions and Majors
By Professors Marion Field Fass, Kevin Hastings, Frank Gersich, and Robin Woods
How do different departments and disciplines define and measure the liberal arts learning goals that characterize the college experience? The project, Missions and Majors, a collaborative project at Beloit College, Knox College, Monmouth College, and Ripon College set out to examine the complementary relationship between general education and the major, and to identify methods of assessment that would allow us to learn about, improve, and strengthen the achievement of liberal learning goals by all of our students.

When we began this project in 2006, we realized that few faculty members at our institutions were enthusiastic about assessment. We believed that by starting small, with 2 departments per college per year, we would find the groups who were ready to innovate, who had real issues to address, and who were interested in making changes.

Finding enthusiastic early adopters was also part of our strategy to increase the number of faculty members who were actively involved in systematically reviewing student learning and departmental curricula. By starting with volunteer faculty and building upon their successes, offering workshops and mini-grants for additional assessment projects, we have been able to involve 40-60% of faculty members at our colleges in activities related to the assessment of student learning.

In the assessment of majors, we left the development of methods up to the individual departments, but asked them to focus on critical thinking, quantitative reasoning and civic engagement in ways that fit their disciplines. We learned that departments and disciplines define their relation to liberal education goals differently. Quantitative reasoning in English is not the same as quantitative reasoning in Economics, and the desired outcomes for majors differ as well. Departments can define their curricula in relation to institutional goals, however, and structure advising and teaching to reinforce their defined goals. Participating departments did just this. The reports from these departments, as well as the reports from mini-grants, are posted
online.

The differences in definitions and approaches that we observed are important to acknowledge in the successful assessment of learning in the liberal arts.

While definitions differed, we found that the eighteen participating departments used a common set of approaches to assessment. Not every department was ready to begin the direct assessment of student learning . Some found that simply reviewing and sequencing course objectives enabled them to assess curriculum and make changes before they began direct measures. Taken together, the approaches taken by departments form a continuum of practices for departments.

This
table identifies the steps in departmental assessment and the number of the 18 participating departments that carried out each step.

Through this project, we have witnessed the development of positive faculty-administration relationships around assessment. On all of our campuses, the faculty members involved have also become the voices of small-scale assessment to provide the basis for course and curricular change informed by both indirect and direct measures of student learning.

Since our project took place during a time of increasing emphasis on assessment by the Higher Learning Commission (our regional accreditor) and AAC&U, it could be argued that the increased interest in assessment practices is the result of external pressures rather than real changes in culture and practice. We suggest, however, that our work has changed attitudes about the usefulness of assessment by encouraging individual faculty members and departments to define and adopt measures that best fit their disciplinary needs. This project demonstrated ways that assessment could benefit faculty members directly while meeting certification needs, actively and productively.

Although this project champions a grassroots, faculty-driven approach to assessment, we stress that this cannot be done solely by the faculty, without support from academic deans and institutional researchers. Three of our four institutions have added capacity in institutional research during the course of this grant.

In this project, Missions and Majors, we have demonstrated how the mission and goals of the institution can help structure the definition and assessment of departmental curricula in order to strengthen general education outcomes. Our approach was simple, and we feel that this contributed to its success. For more information, contact project coordinators Marion Field Fass, Beloit College, Kevin Hastings, Knox College, Frank Gersich, Monmouth College or Robin Woods, Ripon College or go
here.

December 1, 2010

Fostering Culture of Learning Through Research-based Pedagogies
By Gregory R. Wegner, The Great Lakes Colleges Association
A growing challenge confronting virtually any college or university is to build a culture of effective teaching, learning, and assessment that extends across academic departments and disciplines. Academic deans, chief assessment officers, and others charged with overseeing assessment practices can easily feel like Cassandras on their own campuses. They know that the age of accountability has arrived, and that no institution can expect to retain the public trust through broad assurances that “wonderful learning comes about through our curriculum and teaching.” It is not just the scrutiny of higher education’s growing cost that intensifies the need to improve and demonstrate educational results; for their own sake as educators, faculty of every discipline need to take stock of the relationships between teaching practice and learning results, demonstrating to themselves as well as their external constituencies that successful learning has occurred.

There are two ways to foster a culture of more deliberate attention to pedagogy and successful learning in a college or university. One is to impose it as a requirement – as a condition of reaccreditation or a component of a departmental review. A second, more promising approach is to offer support to faculty members who have an interest in exploring alternative pedagogical approaches and gauging the impact on students’ learning.

Three years ago the Great Lakes Colleges Association (GLCA) received a grant from the Teagle Foundation to pursue the second approach – to establish a “collegium” of faculty members interested in exploring how recent research on learning could be applied in more intentional ways to enhance liberal arts teaching.

We called our program the “Pathways to Learning Collegium”; its purpose was to encourage faculty exploration of alternative, research-based, approaches or “pathways” to teaching and learning in undergraduate courses. GLCA invited proposals from faculty members who sought to design and implement a pedagogical innovation derived from learning research in a way that allowed for a comparison of learning from innovative and more traditional methods of teaching.

Project Clusters

We supported 20 faculty-led projects in 13 academic disciplines at 11 colleges. These projects can be grouped into five clusters:

• Building Foundations of Expertise: These projects sought to help students evolve from the status of novice to something more nearly approaching expertise in a field of knowledge – enhancing students’ capacity to recognize key patterns and apply relevant concepts to create meaning from new information, often working in conjunction with student peers in a team configuration.

• Introducing Digital Tools as Mediators of Knowledge to Increase Learning Effectiveness: Pedagogies that employ digital tools in the classroom to increase students’ active involvement in the subject matter and allow faculty members to gauge how well students in the class as a whole understand key concepts.

• Metacognitive Strategies – Instilling Habits of Structured Reflection: Learning strategies that invite students in effect to step back and regard both the subject matter and their own learning processes from a broader perspective – to apply “metacognitive” techniques that help students understand particular information, concepts, and methods in a larger context, and to devise learning strategies that help students better understand parts of knowledge in relation to the whole.

• Engaging the Social and Emotional Contexts of Learning: Pedagogies that engage students on emotional levels as well as in analytic/intellectual capacities – by such means as supplementing traditional expository materials with works of narrative, exploring a course topic through film and other visual media, or introducing experiential/service learning projects to complement more traditional classroom treatment of a subject.

• Strengthening Long-term Retention of Knowledge: Pedagogies that invite students to invoke and apply what they have learned at frequent intervals through a course of study (for example, by writing questions for inclusion in periodic quizzes) to achieve better understanding and improved long-term retention of knowledge.

We learned valuable lessons from projects in each of these five clusters, as recounted in
our full report of the Pathways to Learning Collegium, which appears on the Teagle website. Three of the more notable lessons that emerged from a consideration of the projects as a whole were:

• The need to distinguish between student enjoyment and learning. Some projects offer a cautionary note that increasing a student’s enjoyment of learning process may be desirable, but striving for “fun” (that is, students liking the pedagogy) may not always produce the best learning. Discomfort and challenge can be equally important tools of the learning process.

• The inertia of student expectations about teaching and learning. Several projects served as reminders that students may not exhibit the same enthusiasm as faculty members for active/innovative learning approaches. Some students prefer to remain passive recipients of knowledge and recite factual information that the instructor identifies as being “on the test.” A challenge is to help students understand the value of education that prompts them to apply knowledge or to ask the question that leads to new thinking and development.

• Questions of what we teach and how to measure it. A recurrent question from our projects was how best to measure learning progress of the kind faculty members sought to impart. Is success expressed as the ability to identify or convey content correctly? Is it to apply conceptual principles to solve problems? What is the relation between short- and long-term learning? As one Collegium participant observed, “We measure what we measure, but we don’t always measure what we want.” A conundrum that surfaced in many projects was that the kinds of learning considered most essential to liberal arts education – the ability to think critically, apply relevant concepts to solve problems or achieve understanding, communicate effectively, develop an empathy for others – are the most difficult to measure in quantitative terms.

It is a continuing challenge to develop appropriate means to gauge how well students meet the learning goals that a liberal arts college seeks to achieve for its students – and to use the results of such feedback to make further improvements to teaching. This Collegium had a major impact in advancing the awareness of how research on learning can inform undergraduate pedagogy with beneficial results. The program identified a vital community of faculty members across our member colleges interested in pursuing alternative pathways to learning. Finally, our first results from this seminal program taught us the value of reaching across colleges and academic disciplines to build a more robust culture of teaching, learning, and assessment for improved educational success.

The report of the Teagle-funded GLCA Pathways to Learning Collegium can be downloaded from the
Teagle website.

August 31, 2010

Keeping Things Going in Turbulent Times
By Cheryl Ching, The Teagle Foundation
A year ago, Teagle made a $75,000 grant to the Partnership for After School Education (PASE) to support its Supporting Afterschool Agencies in Turbulent Times (SAATT) initiative. SAATT emerged in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis and was designed to help youth-serving organizations in New York cope with the new economic conditions, and importantly, develop plans that would ensure their stability in the future. With the grant, PASE selected 10 organizations and worked with them to develop strategic plans, identify program outcomes, facilitate staff development, strengthen information technology systems, review financial and fiscal plans, and the like. In addition, PASE ran 6 training sessions—which were open to all organizations in its network—on topics such as evaluation and assessment, strategic planning, creating collaborations and strategic alliances, working with boards, and securing funds for general operating support.

“Findings” from the SAATT initiative were detailed in PASE’s report to the Foundation, and are as follows:

Smaller, nascent agencies are often the ones most in need of assistance as well as the ones for whom individualized support can have the greatest impact. At the same time, however, providing technical assistance to small agencies presents unique challenges. These agencies often lack “the capacity to build capacity,” and the limited number of staff and high demands on leaders of these organizations means that investment in capacity-building must be flexible and well-monitored in order to be effective.

Smaller organizations typically have only one or two individuals in senior leadership positions, and unlike in larger organizations, these leaders are likely to be responsible not only for organizational management but also for supervising day-to-day program operations, often at a very “micro” level. Working with an executive director or senior leader within a multi-tiered management structure at a large organization is a very different endeavor from working with a leader who is not only responsible for the overall management of an organization but may on any given day be called upon to step in and lead an art class in place of an absent teacher, discipline or counsel an individual student, or even go to the grocery store to purchase snacks. Smaller programs also struggle significantly more with emergent circumstances. Staff departures, facilities issues, or any other major disruptions tend to take attention away from any other organizational projects until they are resolved.

A less significant challenge but still an important one to recognize is the powerful personal connection that senior leaders of small agencies—who are often the founders of their organizations as well—have with their organizations. The passion of these individuals for their work is often integral to the success of their organizations, but it can also result in the perception of professional advice as personal criticism.

It is PASE’s experience, however, that none of these challenges diminishes the desire of small organizations and their leaders for healthier management practices and systems or their recognition of the value of expert external assistance. These leaders recognize that the improvement of internal systems and the building of organizational capacity are critical to sustainability and success. This strong desire means that capacity building for small agencies can still be a success despite the challenges described above. In its experience working with these agencies through SAATT and other projects, PASE has identified the characteristics of an approach that will allow technical assistance to overcome these challenges and effect organizational change:

• Employ a joint assessment process that collaboratively identifies needs and priorities. In order for technical assistance to achieve change within an organization, agency leaders must understand the need for this change and recognize it as a priority.

• Ensure that the agency leaders understand the time and energy that will be required to achieve their technical assistance goals and are prepared to commit those resources.

• Establish a clear timeline with deadlines by which particular steps will be completed and revisit this timeline frequently. This timeline should include at least one near-term goal that is readily achievable.

• Balance setting high expectations for these agencies and adherence to the timeline with the recognition that the many competing demands on agency leaders requires flexibility. Technical assistance for small agencies may take longer than services for large agencies.

• Understand and accommodate the emotional connection of leaders to their organizations. In order to be successful, technical assistance providers must be prepared to take a personal approach in their work by findings way to engage with agency leaders, acknowledge their successes, and regularly emphasize that the purpose of technical assistance is to strengthen and sustain their program.

This is all pretty important stuff to keep in mind, even when times are not turbulent.

August 16, 2010

The Straw Man of Science as Enemy of the Humanities
By Adele Wolfson, Wellesley College
Over the last few years, there has been a wave of publications defending the place of the humanities in the academy, supporting a return to “classical” education, and bemoaning the emphasis on professionalism in higher education. (See, for example Martha Nussbaum’s Not for Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Stanley Fish’s column in the New York Times , “A Classical Education: Back to the Future,” and the series on “Science, The Humanities, and The University,” in The New Atlantis .) It is hard to argue with the basic premise that the humanities are a crucial element of every education, college or pre-college: that they inspire and encourage creativity, place ideas in the context of history, prepare students to become engaged citizens, and develop the skills for critical analysis and argument. Where these authors err is in placing the sciences in opposition to these goals. This false tension comes as a result of misunderstanding the nature of the scientific enterprise—bad science education has a lot to answer for!—and a conflation of science itself with the uses to which it has been put.

It is stating the obvious to say that the sciences and the humanities are just two approaches to seeking knowledge. Neither is inherently “useful,” in the sense that is embraced by policymakers and decried by the authors of the above works. (The average high school or college graduate sees no more use for algebra than for Silas Marner.) The humanities and sciences share a goal of understanding the world and our place in it, out of curiosity and wonder and in search of answers to large questions. Employers and politicians who promote science as being more immediately relevant to economic progress are looking for technicians, not scientists, and are short-sighted even according to their own standards: surveys show a majority of employers seek to hire graduates with a broad range of skills and knowledge along with those in-depth in a specific field.

It is ironic that the contribution from science favored by advocates of classical education is almost exclusively content: vocabulary, memorization, and application of basic skills. As most scientist/educators know, content-heavy courses are what drive many talented students away from science. Rather than use the analogy of having to drill on scales before you can play inspired music, I prefer to compare early education in science to learning a landscape by walking in it, not by studying maps.

The basic difference that I have seen—as a scientist, teacher, and administrator— between humanistic fields and scientific ones is in what counts as evidence. Scientists trust data, from which they build theory and make predictions. Humanists trust argument from which they build narrative (or sometimes vice versa ). The more data, the better for scientists, while for humanists a single compelling story can be enough. These differences make for difficult and sometimes contentious faculty meetings, and they explain a lot of the tension around assessment of student learning. Students, however, ought to be exposed to both systems of acquiring knowledge and creating it. Students who major in the sciences at a liberal arts college seem to have the best of both worlds; while students majoring in the humanities or social sciences take the minimum science required for graduation (none if none is required), science students take many more humanities courses and social sciences than needed. As the Nobel laureate Tom Cech describes, these students receive “cross-training” in the disciplines. Further support for this cross-training comes from recent experiments in eliminating the requirement for basic sciences in admission to medical school. The comments posted in response to a
story in the New York Times about the Mt. Sinai Humanities and Medicine Program were filled with testimonials from physicians and medical students of the ways in which science courses, along with humanities courses, had enriched their learning even when not directly relevant to medicine.

Scientists and humanists should be working together to encourage broad liberal education and, in fact, to be finding ways to embed their values and approaches into the professions if that is where students can encounter them.