Evaluation, Quality

Assessment is fun?

In 2006, when I was an assistant professor on the tenure track, I wrote an essay that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Those were the early(ish) days of the assessment movement in higher education and I was feeling the pain. The essay was really meant as an homage to the faculty in my doctoral program who had taught me to love playing with ideas. The loss I was feeling was what I described in that essay as the loss of the chance to wander. Specifying my learning outcomes seemed to rein in that wandering to the detriment of a good Socratic learning experience.

Well, as luck would have it, I wrote that little essay at the same time that the Spellings Report was released. My essay was attached to the back of a special section devoted to the work of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the Chronicle gave my essay the title, “Taking All the Fun Out of Education.” I received a lot of feedback, mostly from other faculty feeling frustrated with the too many rules that assessment seemed to be creating. I also heard from my boss and found myself in charge of assessment in my discipline and then my school shortly thereafter. That’s what complaining will get you.

Since that time, I have moved into administrative roles and the largest part of my job is assessment. When I served as the Dean of Arts & Sciences I was responsible for making sure that every program had an assessment plan and that the plan was followed. As Provost, I’ve expanded my focus from the assessment of programs to the assessment of general education, the development and assessment of university outcomes, and the appropriate measures of our academic success programs. I read numerous program review reports every year, serve on visiting teams for university accreditation, and coordinate the writing of our institutional self-study. It is assessment all day every day.

Today I embrace assessment in ways that I did not in 2006. There is value in setting goals at the course level, in the major, for the whole degree, or for a specific program, if those goals are not overly complicated. When faculty and program administrators take the time to define those goals, they invite us to consider the best strategies for achieving them. The goals are an invitation to start conversations about teaching strategies and the outcomes we value most as a university. They are an invitation to share ideas with our colleagues and to engage the robust literature about innovative and inclusive pedagogies. They are also a clear path to articulating our value to students, families, and the larger publics we serve.

I see the value and even the positive impact that assessment can have when our goals are not overly prescriptive. We do need to make room for some wandering, some inspiration, and some innovation. If we set very narrowly defined goals, we will stop all of that good stuff from happening. Still, there are some things that students must know. Chemists should know enough to keep laboratory work safe and productive. Nurses must know how treatments interact to protect the health of the patient. Musicians need to understand the scales that underpin the compositions they are creating. Historians need to understand the process of vetting information as they place it in a context for describing connections between events. Yes, there are some basics that might well be measured in traditional exams with right and wrong answers. This stuff is important.

But there are lots of places where our goals are broader and perhaps even more important. These goals are about the perspectives each discipline can offer, forms of reasoning to be cultivated, cultural awareness to be explored, the ability to communicate effectively, and the ability to weave new information and experiences into a defensible worldview. These goals need to be assessed, because they are the heart of an undergraduate degree. They help us describe the value we add to the lives of our students in terms that we recognize as important and meaningful. Assessment for the broader goals is more nuanced than an exam, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. The key is focusing on a few important examples, not on everything.

But you know all of this already. The point I am trying to make is that using our assessments to refine our strategies can actually be rewarding. Seeing the impact of a change in curriculum or pedagogy or other interventions can be thrilling, especially when the results are improved outcomes. Letting that strategy go when it isn’t yielding results is also rewarding. It settles a question and helps us move on. The critical thing is not just the doing of assessment, it is using our results.

I’m not grumbling about assessment anymore (although I still want to protect time to wander through ideas). We shouldn’t overdo it, because then it will overwhelm us, and it will lose its value. But we must be sure to fully reflect on the results. We need to carve out time for the conversations that should ensue in departments, on committees, and with the full university after each assessment occurs. It is in those conversations that we will find paths to improvement. It is in those conversations that we will continue to develop our visions for great learning experiences. It is in those conversations that we might have some fun.

Higher Education, Return on Investment, Workforce Development

The Details: Education & Employers

A series of events last week led me to participate in several conversations about the alignment of our university’s program offerings with Connecticut’s workforce needs. These conversations are not new, nor are they surprising. Since our founding in 1913, WCSU has been responding to the needs of the region by growing our program offerings, assessing their quality, and evolving as new discoveries and career paths emerge. Our professional programs align with industry standards and our more broadly liberal arts offerings provide ample opportunity for students to explore the many paths open to them, through research, internships, service learning, and so on. Call it workforce development, career preparation, or access to the American Dream – this is what we do.

Still, I was struck by the confluence of initiatives coming from all corners, so I spent a few hours reading a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, Building Tomorrow’s Workforce: What employers want you to know. In this compilation of interviews with business leaders and career development professionals in higher education there were some important observations about the complexity of aligning education with what employers say they want. There were also some important gaps in the conversations. Those gaps reflect some important details that we all need to understand.

First, not all workforce needs are equal and conflating them is not satisfying for anyone. In our region of the country and elsewhere, there is a pressing demand for an expanded workforce in healthcare. At a four-year university, the pathways to much of this work is through the nursing degree and allied health programs. At two-year colleges, there are opportunities to become Certified Nursing Assistants, phlebotomists, EMTs, and to earn the first level nursing credential. Each of these paths are great opportunities for students and all of them will lead to employment. They are appropriately tiered in terms of the return on investment, with a relatively low-cost for CNA, phlebotomy, and EMT, and somewhat more for the two-year degree, and more for the four-year degree. All of this makes sense in terms of opportunities for graduates and meeting regional workforce needs.

But we can’t keep up with demand. CNAs move on quickly so there is a need for constant replenishment. EMTs are only compensated in some scenarios, so there is some instability there. Nursing programs are working hard to educate as many students as they can, but there are limits on the number of clinical sites, which slows the pipeline. In other words, the education we provide is aligned with the regional workforce needs, but a combination of factors external to higher education is making it hard to keep up with demand.

Then there is the ever-present need for people who understand all things related to computers and the internet. From coding, to cybersecurity, to web development, the demand is clear. The shortfall in appropriately skilled people has led to boot camps, free online programs, the dropping of degree requirements in favor of tests of competence, etc. These short paths to entering reasonably compensated positions is not a bad thing. The industries making these moves are supporting the preparation necessary for entry level opportunities that can be good for the people who take advantage of them.

But, then they want the rest of what we offer — the maturity, the critical thinking, the collaboration and problem-solving skills, and even the understanding of the nuances of cultures — and those short-term credentials don’t get students there. Employers also frequently need the more extensive education in computer science and cybersecurity that we provide. Certainly, those more robust skills and understandings are the path from entry level to more advanced positions. Without them, those short-term credentials may ultimately limit opportunities, rather than grow them.

Universities and colleges do revise and adapt as quickly as we can, but in technology fields new things emerge at a pace that is breathtaking. The short-term paths may be good opportunities for our students, if the employers will also create paths to the rest of the educational opportunities we provide. Support for continued education for those who come through those boot camps would be a great place to start.

What about the degrees we offer that don’t neatly align with a single career trajectory? Well, most jobs require combinations of skills and attitudes that are not aligned with particular majors and a plethora of studies about “what employers want” keep identifying the essential learning outcomes of a liberal arts degree. We do that well. Still, there are some components of positions that a specific course or two might address. For example, there is a high demand for graduates who can support social media sites, so some grounding in how websites work and how to analyze interaction within them might be useful. Many places need people who are able to interpret and communicate about basic quantitative data, so a statistics class is in order. Then there are the many jobs that ask for employees who are adept at interacting with diverse populations of people (in the workplace and in the community). Those skills can come from any number of courses and experiences in our classrooms and in the internships we hope that many organizations will provide. We can be more intentional about promoting these combinations of skills to our students; we hope that employers will make these skills visible in their recruitment language.

The popular perception that higher education is somehow averse to supporting workforce development couldn’t be further from the truth. But supporting the workforce needs of a state is a collaboration. Employers need to understand the barriers we face in meeting their expectations quickly. Limited opportunities for clinical placements make it difficult for us to increase the desired educational pipelines (healthcare, mental health, social work, etc.). Financial realities often make it difficult for students to take advantage of internships. The pace of technological development makes it difficult to re-imagine curriculum quickly. We are not being obstinate; we just face some practical challenges.

These are the kinds of details that need constant attention as we strive to provide the best opportunities for our students and for our region. They are tricky details, but not insurmountable. We are happy to partner up and sort them out. Let’s talk.

Engagement, Hope, Resilience

Skeptical Optimism

It is raining today in Connecticut. The children waiting for the school buses this morning were clad in rain jackets and protective parents held their umbrellas over their impossible to still children. Cars plowed through the puddles creating splashes that made those efforts to stay dry futile anyway. No matter, everyone was smiling. We are grateful for this wonderful replenishing rain.

Long strings of sunny days are a wonderful thing, but we all know that without the rain we perish. The soil needs moisture, and so do we. Sometimes, we even need the break from activity that the rain might postpone. Rain not only nourishes, but it balances us, and makes us question our devotion to blue skies.

I know, I’m going on too long about the rain (I’m just so happy to see it), but it has got me thinking about the kind of balance we try to achieve in all educational settings. We are charged with educating our students about all manner of things – things that are complicated, things that don’t have clear answers, things that are impressive, but not yet done. This is an exciting and daunting responsibility that requires us to be able to celebrate both the sun and the rain.

Consider the work that science faculty must do. Discoveries in science require theories, hypotheses, experiments, results, new hypotheses, and ultimately new theories. All of this is natural for scientists; they see no problem with this cycle. For the uninitiated, though, the certainty of scientific results is shaken by any real understanding of this process. All scientists and students of science must find ways to embrace the temporary nature of our certainty. Each new breakthrough is a miracle that should be celebrated, but also distrusted. For those who find the balance, the path to the next set of questions is the win. They find a way to enjoy the wins (and the knowledge generated by the losses), while maintaining the absolutely necessary skepticism about what they think they know.

Then there are faculty charged with educating our future artists. Learning to be an artist requires a balance of technique, inspiration, and context. Faculty and students in the arts move from the position of the paintbrush, the horn, the toe, to the traditions of the genre, to the reinvention of the rules, often in the same sentence. For the uninitiated, though, art is all opinion and talent, without any of that hard work or precision. In fact, the most successful artists make all of the hard work invisible. The challenge for faculty is not just about convincing students to do the hard work, (counteracting the cultural narrative), it is also about doing so in a way that makes room for the inspiration and yes, talent. The critiques that are central to the creative process must help students find their way to excellence, not make them feel lesser. It is a balance of celebrating success and finding the path forward from the failures.

Ok, I’ve stalled long enough; then there is history. By history, I mean the history of everything-social structures, political structures, art and invention. Oh boy, how we’ve politicized this! Whenever we are charged with guiding students through the past to where we are today, we are going to be stepping into some tricky waters. Our histories are full of awe-inspiring moments. I’m particularly happy about the revolutions that were supported by the invention of the printing press (things like the way we do science, the way we imagine individual and human rights, the way in which governments are formed, come to mind). Understanding the importance of contact between different groups of people, how their ideas about right, wrong, medicine, or art interact with each other is both fascinating and sometimes unsettling. There are exciting tales to tell. But of course, there are no histories or societies without great achievements and great failures.

For those in the humanities and the social sciences, this is obvious. They are adept at examining the complexities of how right, or good, or even success is defined. They are also adept at seeing problems in our assumptions and places where work still needs to be done (and work always needs to be done). It is incredibly important that they have open and honest conversations with their students about the good, the bad, and the ugly that we find in our histories and social structures. They must be fair about the ambiguity in what they see and acknowledge that the meanings ascribed today are likely to change tomorrow as we learn more and expand our thinking. They work to elicit thoughtful critiques and ideas from their students and wrestle with the contradictions those observations may reveal. And, like their colleagues in science and in art, it is important that they help their students find the joy in the good stuff and the path to improvement for the not so great stuff – perhaps with some inspiration and talent.

Eboo Patel describes some of what I’m trying to get at in his essay: Teach Students to Be Builders, not Critics. Patel argues that criticism only goes so far, students need a path to action. I agree with this, although I think more of this is happening in our classrooms than is widely understood. Still, it is a good reminder that as we insist on the fullness of conversations that should happen in all of our disciplines, conversations that must include the failures and the successes, we should always help our students imagine themselves building something better. It is a balance of skepticism and optimism that we hope to strike.

So, I’m back to the rain. Some will curse it as their plans are cancelled, but most of us recognize the essential role it plays in our lives. Those streams we swim in are re-filled, those forests we walk through are lush again, that day of rest from our ballgame is healing our muscles. We can embrace the balance of sun and rain. Let’s also embrace that balance of the great and the awful in our histories and our capacity to grow; the discoveries that cure our ills and and the knowledge gained from those that ended in disaster; the inspirations that brought forth breaktaking new performances and those that resulted in giant ugly messes, from which new inspiration will certainly arise.

Embracing failures, mistakes, and limits are all essential to learning. So is the excitement of being able to see the next question, the place for improvement, the path forward when nothing seems to be working. Dedicated faculty all over the world are starting the fall term, striving to achieve the right balance between those essential pieces of a good education. Balancing them is the complexity and the joy of this profession. It is the sun and the rain.

equity, Regional Comprehensive

Supporting the Mission

On August 12, Secretary of Education, Dr. Miguel Cardona, announced a series of funding opportunities for minority-serving institutions. In launching this new grant program he noted: “It’s a cruel irony that institutions that serve the most students with the most to gain from a college degree have the fewest resources to invest in student success.”  Amen!

He goes on to say, “Too often our best-resourced schools are chasing rankings that mean very little on measures that truly count: college completion, economic mobility, narrowing gaps to opportunity for all Americans,” said Cardona. “Stop conflating selectivity with excellence. We must stop correlating prestige with privilege. We must embrace a new vision of college excellence.” (Inside Higher Ed, August 12, 2022). Amen, again!

So, what is this new vision? For the Secretary of Education, it appears to be about investing in the public colleges and universities that serve the majority of college-going students (73% according to educationdata.org) such that those colleges and universities have the funds necessary to adequately support their students. While he is focused on minority-serving institutions right now (and given their chronic underfunding, this is appropriate), the trajectory of this initiative should reach all campuses charged with teaching the students for whom education will be the most transformative: you know, public higher education. This is anti-racist policy-making at its best. It focuses on a structural problem that disproportionately impacts students of color, first-generation college students, and low income students from all backgrounds.

Having insufficient funds to support students impacts everything: retention, pace to graduation, and graduation. Insufficient funding undermines the transformative power of education, because that lack of investment generally translates into lack of completion. We know this at WCSU, and we work hard to invest what we can in supporting all of our students. But, despite the level of state support we receive (not an insignificant investment), sometimes the timing of funding and student needs are not aligned and we miss the opportunity to adapt quickly.

For example, there is ample evidence that wrap-around advising structures (a social work approach to advising) is very effective in getting students the support they need when they need it. Investing in wrap-around advising is expensive, and investing in it all at once is too big a financial challenge for most public universities. We can’t afford to make the big leap, so we tend to focus on smaller, more incremental approaches, which take longer to yield results.

Research suggests that emergency funds can make the difference between a student stopping out or completing a degree. These are generally small grants that make a big difference in students lives. At WCSU, we have done a good job of prioritizing these funds in recent years, but to really make this strategy work requires more funds for emergencies, and an advising program that helps us know when to step in.

We work with the tools that we have to solve our problems, tools that don’t require too much investment. We have the capacity to look at our own data to determine scheduling problems, pass rates in gateway courses, and the variables that predict student success, or lack thereof. Examining the data is helpful and points to next steps, but those next steps often require investment. Making those investments in a timely way is often impossible.

The need for robust student support services at a regional public is much more pronounced than it is at an elite university. We welcome students who have varied needs and we want to meet each one with the appropriate strategies for success. Yet the resources to respond to these needs are much higher at the elite university. This is an imbalance that must be addressed. I think this is part of Cardona’s point.

Cardona’s words made me feel optimistic. After years of thinking that universities like WCSU were all but invisible, someone has finally acknowledged the importance of what we do. I anticipate that we will see more such announcements as Cardona continues to look at the structural issues that are clear in the data. Things need to change and his early steps acknowledge that need.

Reflecting on the Cardona’s words have made me think about our mission.

Western Connecticut State University changes lives by providing all students with a high quality education that fosters their growth as individuals, scholars, professionals, and leaders in a global society.

That single sentence represents such powerful goals. We strive to change lives and we see evidence of our impact every day. We are the best path to social mobility because we are inclusive by design. We are the best path to self-advocacy because we recognize the role we play in helping our students learn to ask for the opportunities they deserve. We are the heart of a society that strives for equality because we are committed to creating opportunities for all students, not just the lucky few. We want to be that part of the higher education landscape that makes the most difference in the majority of students’ lives.

It is exhilarating to recognize the scope of our ambition. I am inspired to live up to those lofty goals because they are goals that matter. We are essential.

I’m looking forward to next steps from Secretary Cardona, but for today, I feel seen.

Community

Belonging

It is late August and we are all gearing up for another year. Students will join us on Friday, classes will start next Monday, and I am sure that faculty are putting finishing touches on their syllabi. It’s that exhilarating rush of new beginnings and the optimism that comes from the chance to start fresh every fall.

There has not been much downtime for us at WCSU this summer. We have been collaborating on projects that we hope will re-shape our future. I am grateful for all of the hard work that took place, and the ways in which it brought together members from all areas of the university to think things through together. What comes of all of that hard work will be discovered as we review that summer work, but it is that sense of community and belonging that I am thinking about today.

There is a lot of research coming out right now about how important it is for our students to feel a sense of belonging. It is directly related to retention, it is directly related to the success of our students of color, our first-generation students, and our students who sometimes struggle to find their fit. Spring 2022 saw reports from faculty and student affairs professionals all over the country about students feeling at sea, disengaged, and wobbly about being in college. It is showing up in classrooms, mental health offices, and retention rates.

In Reimagining the Student Experience, a recent report from The Chronicle of Higher Education, there are lots of good observations about steps we can take to help students see themselves as members of our community. Here’s a short list.

  1. Everyone needs a group of friends, but building these friendships is not easy for everyone. Commuter students don’t have activities created by our Residential Staff, working students don’t have time for many campus activities, and many students find initiating conversations challenging. The best place to overcome some of these barriers to friendships is to build social connections in classes. Most of us initiate connections between students with icebreakers and introductions. We need to do it throughout the semester in intentional ways.
  2. Help students create a buddy system so they have someone to contact about notes, etc., when they have to be absent. This is so obvious, but it is hard for some students to ask.
  3. Try to schedule some office hours adjacent to your teaching time. For many students (especially commuters) it is easiest to ask their questions right before or after class. Even with all of our remote access for advising, which is probably the best outcome of COVID-19, the immediate conversation is still incredibly valuable.
  4. Demonstrate interest in students’ lives outside of class by participating in or attending some of the events that they value. See their shows or games, go to their fundraisers or service events, participate in a co-curricular activity. Faculty and staff can’t do it all, they have lives too, but a little bit goes a very long way.

These are good ideas, ideas that I know many of us have been doing for years. I enjoy the low-tech, simplicity of it all. If this will help our students feel they belong, let’s do it.

As I write this, though, I am thinking more about the people here who have been working all summer. Faculty, staff, and administration are trying to understand the path to a stronger university, together. People we once knew via email are now people with whom we have had long and passionate conversations. Strategies for student success that have been supported in one area, are now known by people in other areas who are trying to do the same thing. People who were struggling alone to try to solve problems, now know that others are interested in those same goals. In other words, I think our summer work has created a better path to a sense of belonging for all of us.

In that report about Reimagining the Student Experience, Sarah Rose Cavanagh argues that “Students– and indeed, people generally– are motivated by the feeling of being part of a team tackling a shared problem.” It is that common effort that makes us feel connected and valued. Certainly, this offers insights on creating a more connected campus community and a more connected student body.

But in that same report, Flower Darby asks us to think not just about belonging, but about the value of the learning experience, something many students have been questioning. Darby says, “[T]hink about the value that students get from spending time with you, the instructor….The benefit of taking your class is taking it with you.” Wow! That’s a reframing that I needed to read. I’d like to take it beyond the classroom: What is the value that our campus community gets from spending time with you, our colleague… the benefit of interacting with you is you!

This is a provocative and exciting observation. Instead of focusing on seeing the best in others (an effort that shouldn’t be ignored of course), it asks us to think about how we bring a unique perspective and vision to our roles and responsibilities. This question encourages us to see our value and it might even help us narrow our focus and hone that thing we are really great at. I hope so. What I am certain of, though, is that the question gives me a new way to think about this year. It’s a fresh start once again.