Wednesday, December 23, 2009

What do we lose when we overlook the stories of students?

It is not a wise thing to make meaning out of coincidence. I'll do it here.

My daughter, about whose struggles I have written off and on, got home from her first semester at college the same day I turned in grades for my freshman seminar (about which I have written as well). My daughter's first semester grades were quite good, and after a difficult semester--for her emotions, her connections with others, and her sense of self--she got home with a bit of hope.

The day she got home I gave 3 failing grades in my seminar. They were for students who never attended or completed work, and who did not respond to my efforts (or those of others) to reach out to them. Those students, and the rest in my class, though, are registered for next semester. And so, they may stay at the college (I would bet against it). I can't know what their visits home were like.

My daughter and the students in my seminar have been, for the time being, retained. That fact will be recorded in the retention data we keep, and over which we puzzle. And that fact will be publicized, especially when the retention numbers are high. (The President of my daughter's college, in a letter at the beginning of his annual report, noted that 96.6% of undergraduates returned in the last year for which they have statistics.)

But having experienced my daughter's first semester so intensely, and having some insight into the experiences of my students, I can't help but feel the loss when those experiences are folded into "retention data."

Perhaps I have been too much influenced by my training as a historian, or my fondness for the writing of Wendell Berry and its reminder to tell local stories. And as I have been thinking about this post, a few lines from Zbigniew Herbert's "Mr. Cogito on the Need for Precision" keep coming to mind.

Herbert was a Polish poet, and witness to many of the atrocities of totalitarianism. Mr Cogito is his alter ego. Near the end of a long poem on the violence of the 20th century, Mr. Cogito reminds us:

[...] in these matters
Accuracy is essential
We must not be wrong
Even by a single one

We are despite everything
The guardians of our brothers

Ignorance about those who have disappeared

Undermines the reality of the world.

(Commentary here and here.)

I know that staying in college (or not) is nothing like disappearing in Stalin's gulag. But being invisible to people who, for whatever reason, are supposed to be connected to you, is a failure. And if the stories of those students who stay, and those who leave, are lost, then in important ways our systems allow "ignorance about those who have disappeared." If Herbert is right, this is not just a small problem. It is a way of undermining the reality of the world, turning it from concrete to something abstract.

So at the end, here, let me put in a plug for gathering and using stories of retention (or of not-retention). The fact that 78% or 96.6% of our students come back tells us only a little. What will tell us more is if we know our students well enough to say for each one that he or she has stayed (or left) for good reason. And it isn't enough, probably, for student affairs staff, or a professor here or there, to be able to speak to the actual experience of actual students. Their stories need to be told, and remembered, by fellow students, and by administrators, and leaders.

Colleges imagine themselves as communities. We aim to build places where relationships lead to learning. If we are to be communities of learners, we must remember that we are, "despite everything the guardians of our brothers."

Friday, December 18, 2009

Learning about cost and quality from health care and agriculture

Atul Gawande has a great piece in the 14 December 09 New Yorker. "Testing, Testing" contains hints at two ideas that would help higher ed move ahead on the cost/quality issue.

First, he reminds us that for health care reform to succeed government has to mandate that nearly every American get health insurance. Or, put another way--the best way to ensure access to health care is to require that people get access to health care. Mandated access is important because it is only by expanding the market that the pool of the insured is large enough to make insurance a viable business.

Access to higher education is the sometimes forgotten key to cost and quality in higher ed as well. Millions of new potential university students aren't attending college. And millions more who have dipped their toes into higher ed are no longer pursuing it. Why? Cost is a big factor, along with cultural challenges, and the indifference of much of HE to their plight. So, if we want movement on cost, perhaps we need to move on requiring access. (I know the objections--not every job requires higher ed, many, many people can't afford it, it extends the power of the state well-beyond its current already-impressive reach, etc.)

And who knows--millions more adults, required to get higher education, might be a powerful force for reform of higher education. (Right now students and potential students have a very limited role in pushing reform--they act largely by choosing another campus, dropping our, or never joining up.)

Gawande then explains why access should be a requirement, but there should be no standardized approach to insurance and treatment. To make this point he turns to another mandatory practice--eating. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries food was expensive and access was limited. Farming was outdated, soils depleted, public health poor, life expectancy relatively low, farm work brutal.

Government did not mandate a particular approach to growing food, though. Instead it catalyzed changes through extension agents. One particularly influential agent, Seaman Knapp, traveled to Terrell Texas to try to get farmers to try out some new techniques. Not every farmer adopted them at first. Instead, community leaders (most of them farmers) encouraged one farmer, Walter Porter, to try the new techniques. Terrell's leaders provided support for Porter. In some ways they helped reduce his exposure to risk (of embarrassment, failure, financial ruin) while he experimented. When his changes made a difference, most of the farmers in the area adopted them. Food costs began to decline, access to food improved, as did quality and public health. Based on this success the US government created an army of extension agents, dedicated to doing what Walter Porter did.

Now the history of agriculture since then hasn't been all good. Small farms have died, natural growing techniques have disappeared, agribusiness rules the day.

But in that story there is an important suggestion for higher ed. Experiments on cost are risky when gone alone. But a consortium of schools can help spread risk. The consortium agrees that a particular approach looks promising. One school agrees to try it out. The other schools indemnify the experimental school. If things go poorly the consortium helps fix the problem ( by providing money, support etc.) But if they go well the consortium shares in the benefit and they all adopt the changes. The consortium comes to look something like a mutual aid society--a group of people or organizations committed to the well-being of their members by sharing risk and success.

Today there are plenty of consortia of colleges and university. But few of them collaborate in this way. Instead they gather for meetings, swap stories, produce papers, but when the chips are down members of the consortium are on their own. Perhaps it is time to look to the past when these cooperative organizations were the basis of our social safety net and civic innovation. Couldn't hurt.

or if the historical allusion doesn't work, consider a modern one--venture capital. Imagine 20 college presidents, each serious about cost/quality. They each pitch in $100K to a fund. They fund experiments, and get equity in the results. Something works, all benefit, something fails, no one faces a total crisis.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Can all students have an honors-like experience?

Last week a group of us--faculty, staff, administrators--got together for a conversation about vision in higher ed. Most of us lead co-curricular programs. The premise of the conversation was that in a time where people feel constrained, anxious, etc. about the future of higher education it makes sense to think about what a better world would look like. So we talked about these questions: What would you do if you suddenly had many more resources to run your program with? What if you had freedom to lead your program where you want it to go. Where would you lead?

Though we all said it in different ways the group came to one agreement--if we had freedom and/or resources, we would spend more time working directly with students, and that work would look a lot like an honors program.

I should explain--most of the group has little interest in teaching honors classes--at Westminster small seminars team-taught by our best faculty for students with the highest academic profile. But there are components of the honors program, or athletics, or music students, that most of us enjoy and believe lead to good learning. Here they are:
  1. students strongly committed to the program--once students are admitted to honors they rarely leave. Instead that commitment becomes part of their identity
  2. long-term commitments and connections--honors students participate in two years of seminars and then complete an honors thesis. In other words, they commit to each other and the program for the duration of their time at the college. And the honors faculty return year after year, so the connections between faculty and students endure as well.
  3. freedom to give the program distinctiveness--honors students complete their liberal education requirements in the program. But their LE looks substantially different from that of other students
Not every student can be an honors student. (After all, honors is a way of drawing distinctions between some students and others.) And honors is an expensive program per-student. Small team-taught classes are expensive. So are scholarships for students. But the conversation got me thinking about what a school built around an honors-like experience would look like. Here are some thoughts;
  • the campus would be broken into smaller and longer-lasting groups--every student in a cohort of 20, say, for their entire experience at the college.
  • individual faculty/staff would connect with a group the entire time they are on campus.
  • the faculty/staff group leader would have a substantial amount of say on who is admitted to the group and what the group's program looks like.
  • groups might overlap, and they would share administrative support, but there would be no common experience for all students, except the experience of being part of an on-going group of fellow-learners.
  • within the groups, students would have heightened leadership roles, shaping the activities of the group, its educational experience, and its standards.
  • in short, the educational experience would be decentralized.
Is this the sort of thing you would like to see happen on your campus? Could it? What would be the result for students? For faculty and staff? For the institution? If not, why does it work for honors students but not the rest of the student body?

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Learning Through E-Portfolios

This semester my class has been piloting a new e-portfolio project at Westminster. The overall goal of the initiative is to have all undergraduates create e-portfolios showing that they have achieved the college-wide learning goals. The portfolio would include artifacts and reflections from the student's entire time at the college, and from the co-curriculum as well as the curriculum.

During the semester we have been testing the e-portfolio software (Foliotek) as well as seeing if first-semester students care about things as abstract as our learning goals, can use rubrics, can reflect on ways that their artifacts are evidence of learning, etc. And we have been investigating whether this can happen in a freshman seminar.

I cannot speak for what the students have learned, but I've learned quite a bit about learning goals, definitions, rubrics, and e-portfolios. Here are a few of the highlights:

1. Come around to the learning goals--my students are cool to abstraction, so when confronted with a learning goal like "global consciousness, social responsibility, and ethical awareness" they cannot get much traction. But start a discussion about how outlawing DDT preserved the environment in the US while heightening the impact of malaria in the developing world and they connect right away to the goal. Present them with a definition and the class becomes as interesting as a dictionary. Ask them to create a definition based on the DDT conversation and all of the sudden definitions are more interesting. Of course this is true, you will say. But a lot of the work on learning goals/outcomes, whatever its aim, comes across as abstraction.

2. When using a rubric, have students score the work of strangers first--one of our goals was to see if the rubrics for our learning goals made sense to students. So I asked them to use our rubrics to evaluate their work. As is almost universally the case, the students overestimated the quality of their work. Consistently. Through the semester. But when some students used the rubrics to analyze the work of professional journalists writing about science, the rubrics gave them a framework to point out the gaps in professional writing. The lesson? A rubric is a frame that makes sense of the world, not a window into your own soul.

3. Creativity is a good way into reflection--I had students write reflections about their work in critical thinking, ethical awareness, and communication. Their reflections tended not to show much self-awareness. But when I asked them to reflect on their creativity, the reflections were much more powerful. In retrospect, this is understandable. We understand creativity as being personal and internal--something emerging from who we are. Communication is external--a tactic rather than a trait. By writing about their acts of creativity students were much closer to who they think they are, good and ill.

4. A small barrier is all it takes--with something new like an e-portfolio, a small barrier was all it took to discourage students from participating. In the foliotek system a student can begin to create her e-portfolio only upon receiving a user name and password from foliotek. (Foliotek sends them out once we request the creation of an account in a particular student's name.) For students who deleted the email, or skipped it, or who never read their campus email account, the small obstacle of having to hunt down the email was very likely to keep them from getting started on the portfolio or doing good work in it. I know, I know--causation vs. correlation. But when I do it again I am going to make sure I lower the barriers as much as possible for students, because if you don't start you go nowhere.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Mistakes in teaching--presentations

The semester is nearly wrapped up; its lessons are becoming clearer. One came clear to me last night--if your goal is to get students to determine the most important things they've learned, a presentation is a weak way to do it.

Last night students in my freshman seminar class gave final presentations. The purpose of the presentation was to get students to identify the key things they learned about science and ethics (the topic of the seminar) by asking them to distill their learning in a presentation.

The guidelines were simple--pick a scientific issue with significant ethical implications. Create a powerpoint that analyzes those implications using a set of questions from one of our readings. Submit the powerpoint as an artifact in their e-portfolio. In the presentation, focus on one part of the powerpoint--the student's view of how society should respond to the ethical issues. Five minutes to present.

The presentations were, in general, weak. Some students took the brief presentation time as a sign that they didn't need to prepare well. Others tried to fit their entire powerpoint into 5 minutes. Students who are confident in class discussion were tongue-tied by having more time to prepare and the attention of the entire class.

Many of these things are predictable--the result of students making decisions about how to allocate limited time, feeling under pressure in their other classes, etc. But there was one thing that I might not have predicted. The students indeed learned a lot about the issue and the ethics in their preparation. But that learning didn't come out in the presentation. Instead, it showed up in their responses to questions from the group.

For example, one presentation on the dangers associated with playing with the movement of subatomic particles made almost no sense and was alarmist (the student suggested that cooling an atom to absolute zero could cause a black hole to emerge on earth). But in response to questions from classmates, he clearly explained how super-cold temperatures affect subatomic movement and the implications of that for the stability of matter. In other words, presentation showy and not convincing; responses to questions thoughtful and measured.

The same thing happened with several other presentations/questions. So I am left wondering why. Why would a prepared presentation with clear guidelines elicit less thoughtful work than an unscripted question and answer session? What does this mean for the wisdom of assigning student presentations at all?

Friday, December 11, 2009

humanities and perspective

Anonymous wrote the following (thanks for the comment!) in response to my last post wondering whether perspective can be taught:

I think that is what the humanities are for! Think where we would be if we had to experience all of life's possible heartaches in order to understand them! Life would really be unbearable then. But the humanities are becoming less important, considered less useful, even in the context of the liberal arts. It's a shame. (Perhaps one day, the humanities will be back, along with friendship, and letter writing in long hand! What do you think?)

Anonymous' comments hit home for me. My family is an arts and humanities family--lots of books around the house, everyone a musician, and kids who like their courses in the humanities. I sit on the board of the Utah Humanities Council whose mission is to improve public life through the humanities. And I've done some surveying of freshmen about their views on the humanities as part of general education.

There are some interesting (and hopeful) things afoot with young people and the humanities. The bad news is that they are relatively uninterested in traditional approaches to the humanities--survey classes in history or art history for example, or public lectures by renowned humanists. (UHC is struggling to find ways to get young people to its programs, for example.

But my sense is that there is a flowering of "doing humanities" among young people.

  • Memoir, for example, is a simple thing using the internet or scrapbooks, and Facebook can be seen as an act of self-creation as significant as autobiography and journal writing.
All of these trends, and Anonymous' comment which linked them in my head, make me think that the humanities may be a key pathway to perspective for college students. They also make me think that we need to re-think our humanities curricula. Can courses in those key disciplines be as much about doing as about learning? If so, then they would link the experiential components of perspective with the educational components that we are established to provide.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Can perspective be taught, or is it only learned?

A couple of experiences in the last week have gotten me thinking about perspective. (Here I don't mean optical perspective, but instead the ability to place something in context, and by so doing, respond wisely to it.) My daughter is at the end of her first semester in college, with many of the concerns that 18-year-olds have: what will I do with my life? why do other people have more friends than me? why don't boys like me? why does college seem like such a drag?

At the same time, we have entered the complaint season on campus. Some faculty are unhappy about their students, others about the budget, others about administrative processes. Some students want to know why they won't pass their classes unless they do the work, others hate the food in the cafeteria, etc. We all need to unload.

In both instances, the dissatisfaction is predictable, cyclical. But the question is how to respond. With my daughter I have tried to gently remind her that she is only 18, and that many of her concerns will work themselves out, and her experiences are common among freshmen. But the words don't seem to salve the hurt. With people on campus, responses to the particular concerns, explanations of how things got to be the way they are, or re-assurances that things are actually fine don't always work either.

In both instances, providing perspective doesn't lead people to take perspective.

Why is this? After all, one of the assumptions behind education (and especially general education) is that perspective can be taught. Most liberal arts disciplines are at their core about perspective--ways of seeing the world so that it makes the present more comprehensible, or more tolerable, or open to fixing.

But a general education is no guarantee of perspective, and telling a daughter that she is beautiful and smart and things will get better is no guarantee that she will believe. Still, over time, she will come to that conclusion, just like over time the complaints will become workable, and students will learn perspective.

Is there something experiential about perspective? Must important parts of human life be experienced before they can be understood? And if so, what should schools and educators do? Can perspective be taught, or only learned?

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

when do you reinvent the wheel?

I've written a few times about analogies and metaphors of education. One of the most common these days is "don't reinvent the wheel." This is the sort of advice that sounds wise on first listen, but becomes almost meaningless the more you think about it.

Its meaninglessness is wrapped up in what it implies--that somehow a teacher can import something--the "wheel"--into a class and that doing so will save time and money. This is a key assumption behind the open content movement. But I've wracked my brain, and cannot think of any "wheel" that reduced my time commitment because it was so easily applied to the course.

Instead, in my experience importing something into my teaching means one of two things:

1. I simply shift the time and location of the effort from one place to another. So, for example, when I have incorporated a new textbook into a class, it shifts where I spend my time, moving it earlier in the sequence. Or, I re-allocate resources away from one thing (say, preparing class presentations) to another (becoming familiar with the textbook).

2. I take that thing--a textbook, a pedagogy, some technology, an approach to mentoring--and over the course of the semester my experience with students requires that I re-create the thing itself. I drop chapters that don't work, change topics, spend more time on working with students and less on course content, whatever. By the end of the semester, the "wheel" and the course look substantially different.

Now, I know it is possible to do neither. My dissertation advisor, for example, used the same lecture notes for his intro to US History course in 1995 as he did in 1969. But I expect that most good teachers re-invent the wheel every time they enter the classroom. Perhaps it is because they are guided by another phrase--"you can never step into the same river twice."

Is this a good thing?

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Means, Ends, Cost, Quality

I've been wondering lately if the effort to reduce costs (while maintaining quality) in higher ed is an end in itself, or a means to something more important. I'm afraid that the cost discussion in higher ed is following the health care discussion, where the end has become passing a health insurance reform bill, not finding ways for Americans to be healthier.

In the same way, it appears that reducing cost has become an end in itself, not a pathway to something else. This is a problem for three reasons:

1. I'm not sure that the call to cut costs motivates the people in a position to do it. Instead it may put them--faculty, staff, and administrators--on edge, worrying about their jobs and pitting them against each other. ("The expensive part of education isn't what I do, it is all that extra stuff (fill in your favorite bugbear) the college does.")

2. When a reform movement becomes an end in itself, it tends to become isolated--it has its own center, or its own organization, but it struggles to spread throughout campus. Here, the cost/quality movement would be wise to learn from all of the other reform efforts--service-learning, assessment, etc. which got stymied on campuses where the goal was simply to "have one" (a service-learning center, an assessment office, learning communities, whatever) rather than to use that tool to stay interesting, alive sorts of places.

3. The notion of something being an "end" assumes a linear path to that end and a hierarchical organization to support it. But paths aren't linear, higher ed isn't hierarchical, and colleges and universities are systems, not pyramids. So thinking about cost/quality as an end makes such efforts butt up against the complex, interdependent way that things are. (On a philosophical level, I don't believe there are really ends anyway. All things are means; ends happen when you stop to look around and take your bearings...)

So if we thought of cost/quality as a means rather than an end, what difference would it make?
A huge one, in my view, because we could then connect the effort to values that are widely held and practices that are already embraced in HE or on a particular campus.

For example, most colleges and universities are inspired by a democratic vision--that access to education is a way of building just, wise, and healthy societies. Reducing the cost of education makes that democratic vision more likely and links it with other democratization efforts--civic engagement, retention, diversity, etc.

Most colleges and universities care that their students become part of a community of learners. Linking cost reduction to community-building is a powerful activity. Let's say that a campus wants to make college more affordable by hiring more students to work on campus. The act of hiring students to work on campus knits them into the campus community, makes them not just consumers of school, but producers of learning and stewards of place.

Most schools want to stay lively, to maintain momentum, to innovate, to encourage creativity among faculty and staff, to share those innovations across the campus. The cost/quality challenge, like retention, or civic engagement, or any of the other recent reforms, calls for innovation and creativity. Linking it there reinforces the campus culture instead of suggesting that the campus culture is an impediment.

All schools are committed to learning. Where innovation advances learning (or makes it more visible) and students understand that, they are more likely to stay, and to love their time in college, both things that make the cost of higher education seem like a value, not a punishment.

All of this is to suggest that while much of the conversation about the future of higher ed assumes radical changes afoot, perhaps the best way to succeed in their face is to preserve tradition--those values and practices that inspire, unite, and advance our core mission--to educate.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Thanksgiving week odds and ends

I've been away for the past week, visiting California and my oldest daughter who is 2/3 of the way through her first semester. A few thoughts piled up. Here they are, in no certain order (and without any promise of value):

1. Disneyland and the first-semester of college can have the same impact on teenagers. We spent two days at Disneyland along with about 20 members of my wife's family. Disneyland is an amplifier. It heightens things for good or ill. Food costs more, crowds are more crowdy, fun is funner, anxiety is more troubling. Everyone knows this. But being there with my college-age daughter, and talking with her about her feelings about college, reminded me that college, especially in the first year, does exactly the same thing. Disagreements escalate, uncertainty becomes paralysis, confidence becomes certainty. What should colleges do with the amplification?

2. Faculty need to make more mistakes. Neil Postman suggested in The End of Education that faculty could improve student learning by making mistakes on purpose when teaching. Students would learn by truth-testing their faculty. Just before break I gave my students an assignment but with the rubric for another assignment included. Interesting responses from my students--a couple tried mightily to fit their assignment into the wrong rubric. A couple pointed out my error. But most went along with the assignment as if nothing was wrong...

3. Student evaluations of faculty may become obsolete. As faculty focus more on student learning, student evaluations of faculty may make less sense. This is especially the case when faculty use student-centered pedagogies--problem-based learning, collaborative learning, etc. The student evaluation hardly touches at all on the work faculty do in these settings.

4. Gratitude is much more important for learning than we credit it for. Or perhaps more correctly, ingratitude impedes learning. Ingratitude locates obstacles outside of the learner--I can't learn because of the teacher, or the course, or the subject, or the school--and because those external obstacles can't be controlled, learning dies.

Thanks to all of you.