Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies

Starting with Learning

The drumbeat of mergers and closures of small colleges appears to be speeding up.  Chancellors and Presidents of public systems of higher education are examining mergers, shared leadership, and stripped down administrative structures to try to preserve the range of opportunities available in their states.  In New England (and Alaska), shrinking demographics are driving these conversations forward at a sometimes alarming pace.

At the same time, we have seen other developments such as SNHU’s competency-based degrees, Stevens Point’s proposed cuts of several majors (now reconsidered and reconfigured as mergers), Hamilton’s promotion of an open curriculum (less focus on majors, more on developing an area of interest), and this morning, Wichita State’s shrinking of their general education requirements from 42 credits to 33.   And in the background is the constant credential refrain, with short certificates gaining more and more traction.

How can those of us in higher education leadership respond to this tidal wave of change in sane and thoughtful ways?  Well, I don’t really know where to begin, but here are a few thoughts.

Credit hours may be an archaic idea, but the idea that it takes time and interaction with other people to develop the habits of mind we associate with a college education is not.

I am happy to consider online or blended learning, shorter and longer times on material, and even the opportunity to test into higher levels of courses to reflect learning prior to higher education.  These considerations are driven by focus on what and how our students will best learn with us. This does not mean, however, that I am willing to consider the notion that higher education should be construed as a series of tests of existing skills in exchange for a credential.

While the complexity of non-standard times, differing learning modalities, and the evaluation of prior learning are much more difficult to manage well than the simple admissions tests of our existing structures, I embrace them because they are responding to genuine changes in the world of potential students. Information is everywhere and it is clear that people can learn to do many, many things from a YouTube video (play an instrument, develop a computer app, pass algebra, build a shed).  We must not ignore this, or the fact that some of the things we want our students to be able to do are well supported by these short tutorial formats.

Nevertheless, the more complicated abilities that are described as critical thinking, lifelong learning, cultural competency, and communication take sustained interactions with others and with the support of a professor.  The opportunity for (slower) sustained interactions is the opportunity for students to develop comfort with ambiguity, stumble on their assumptions with the chance to revise them, and learn that all knowledge is developed through insight and error. If we move to new time constructs, we must not lose this part of education.

Interdisciplinary connections matter, but they do not replace disciplinary expertise. 

I love the imaginative things that are happening with majors.  Hamilton’s open curriculum mirrors what many elite schools have done for years.  They allow students to discover connections between subjects to build a major or a portfolio of capabilities that will help them pursue advanced study or careers.  At my university, we do this through Contract Majors or the Interdisciplinary Studies degrees.  We have lots of traditional majors, but we also make room for those new or yet undiscovered connections. Making  more room for those authentic connections might be a good idea, because disciplines are evolving and sometimes students see the change before we do.

Nevertheless, a biologist is still a biologist.  A literature scholar still offers depth of understanding of genres and structures of the novel, poem, etc.  A mathematician is still the expert on differential equations.  Combining disciplinary perspectives should be the heart of a college education, but that combination should be made by experiencing learning with people who have advanced knowledge in each topic.  Without that advanced expertise, students will not discover the nuances of a topic or the complications that arise from ambiguity. Instead, they will end up with a simplified overview of a topic. That is not college, that is YouTube.  So, let’s support the pursuit of connections with new strategies, but let’s not lose the value of the expert.

Focusing on higher order learning outcomes is a good idea: making everything the same is not.

AAC&U has long supported the Essential Learning Outcomes and as we see an increased emphasis on what employers want, it turns out that they frequently list the very same things.  Everyone wants college graduates who are skilled in critical & creative thinking, oral and written communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, problem solving, inquiry & analysis, the ability to collaborate, and some understanding of the world around us (history, culture, ethics, etc.).  These essential learning outcomes (codified in the VALUE Rubrics) prevent the narrowness of focus found in course finals or major field tests and frame the outcomes of a college degree as habits of mind and skills that prepare graduates to engage with all kinds of questions for the rest of their lives.  In short, graduates should know how to evaluate information, make decisions, and ask more questions.

As a communication scholar, it is easy for me to see that at a high level of abstraction everything we do in college is about inquiry and analysis. The behaviors and skills that represent competence in inquiry and analysis can be summarized in a way that allows every discipline to demonstrate some level of mastery in these abilities.  But this does not mean that every discipline is the same. Comfort in inquiry and analysis will reflect the specific skills most emphasized in the major.  For it to reflect the whole of an undergraduate degree, it must include some comfort in the areas that are not well situated in the major. That was the point of the liberal arts degree.

So where does this leave me and my quest for thoughtful consideration of the many changes facing higher education?  It leaves me with a clear focus on learning.  We can support learning in any number of formats, time frames, and disciplinary innovation, but we must remember that to support it well means to resist the temptation to overgeneralize (make everything the same) or to reduce everything to very narrow skills (badges).  It is the fluid motion between the abstract and the specific that will help students grow, develop, and take control of their own learning.  That is the environment that I’d like to nurture.

 

 

 

 

Engagement, Growth Mindset, Innovative Pedagogies

Being Vulnerable

This afternoon I am going to go and have some fun with the WCSU music department.  Part of their program includes convocations twice a week, in which various student, faculty, and guest artist performances take place.  I am going to perform with a group of talented students, answer some interview questions by the host, and take my chances on testing my very rusty sight reading skills.  The chances of making at least one mistake are very high.

As I thought about this, and the many other things I have done just this week that had a high risk of error, it made me think about the idea of vulnerability in the classroom. Every single time a faculty member enters a classroom there is a high likelihood that some error will take place. It could be small – like messing up a due date – or larger – like getting lost in an equation we are trying to explain.  These moments have the potential to shake our confidence, and worse, convince us to be risk-aversive in the classroom.

In the past several years, there has been a lot of discussion around the notion of “mindset” in education. There are a couple of important observations in mindset theory. The first is that people with a fixed mindset tend to see learning in terms of talent and innate ability. From this point of view effort matters to a point, but there is not a lot of room for change in our capabilities.  We are either good at something or not. For growth mindset people, learning is indeed a function of effort and our talents can change and grow over time.  (See Carol Dweck’s work for a more thorough explanation.)

Things that follow from these two perspectives are related to risk-taking.  Students with a fixed mindset tend to be looking for right answers and are uncomfortable with getting wrong ones. When they do make a mistake, they are likely to see that as a function of their natural ability (or lack thereof) and simply dismiss their ability to find a right answer. Growth mindset is the opposite.  Getting things wrong is the path to learning, growing, and improving.

It seems like the growth mindset is the better perspective for education.  But, do we really cultivate environments where failing or making a mistake is ok?  I’m not sure.

Some faculty are great about building enough assignments into their courses so that no single score is the measure of a student’s ability.  This approach gives students the opportunity to drop lowest grades, or get a few low scores on assignments that are building blocks to larger things, with those larger things weighing more in the grade formula. Others offer opportunities to revise things, which certainly can encourage a student to get started on a project, even if confused, and then have the chance to do better with feedback.  These are all good practices that encourage a student to try, even if they might make a mistake.

But there’s more to cultivating an environment in which we are comfortable taking risks or being wrong.  We have to be role models for failures.

I think back to how frightened I was as a student, not wanting to raise my hand lest I be way off base in my response.  My heart used to pound as I finally took the chance and there were even cold sweats involved.  I was afraid I would look stupid.  Eventually, I developed comfort in taking a chance on a response, but it wasn’t easy.  I think some successes (right answers) and some helpful follow up questions from supportive faculty (for my wrong answers) built courage. Their probes helped me see errors as part of learning, not a condemnation of my skills. I went through this process of developing courage as an undergraduate, graduate student, and even at academic conferences as I ventured to comment on a presentation.  I was truly terrified, but eventually pushed through and developed a habit of trying out my ideas.

In the classroom, I also battled the risk-aversive behaviors brought on by fear. In the early years, I prepared so many notes to be sure I did not make a mistake. Like most junior faculty, I was worried that I just didn’t know enough yet, and that I would be easily tripped up.  Over time, though, I freed myself from the need to be perfect and, though still devoted to strong preparation, I frequently tossed out ideas that just did not work. This allowed me to laugh at myself with my students watching and, I hope, encouraged my students to be brave.

Now, as an administrator, I follow the same practice. I do research, develop proposals through lots of conversations with colleagues, and then send things out to our whole community for review. Some things are revised and adopted through that review; some are dismissed as bad ideas.  I could avoid the risk of the dismissal and not have to steel my nerves for the negative comments, but I do not think it is good for our organization to wait for ideas to be perfect.  Like the mindset we are hoping to cultivate in the classroom, I am hoping for all of us to become comfortable exploring ideas, building our ability to develop proposals, and have to courage to have them edited or rejected later.  It is my best effort to cultivate an organization with a growth mindset.

Teaching, scholarship, and policy-making are inherently about vulnerability.  Those of us who have made careers in education are always risking errors and making mistakes in very public ways.  We are not able to edit everything out in a document in the safety of our offices.  We have to perform and remember things in real time.  Even our documents are open for edits and critique. It can be scary, but perhaps that is the point. If we want to support a growth mindset in our students, we have to believe in it for ourselves.  We must embrace our fumbles and errors and our capacity to learn more, and we need to do it in front of our students. Then they might come to trust us enough to try out difficult ideas and learn from their mistakes.

So, here’s to embracing vulnerability.  It is the fastest path to strength that I have found.

 

 

Dialogue, Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Orientation

Small Measures: Using the Data

This morning I returned from my annual week in the woods to discover our institution’s National Survey of Student Engagement Report (NSSE) on my desk.  For the uninitiated, the NSSE compares student reported experiences of academic and other campus interactions both within group (comparing first-year to senior year-responses) and between colleges of similar types. Like all surveys, the NSSE is an imperfect measure, but it does reveal some potential points of pride and some areas we might improve on.  Since we invest in this survey as part of our institutional assessments, I am thinking that we ought to make some specific plans to use the information gathered.

First, the good news.  Our first-year and senior-year students are reporting spending more hours on reading and writing than the students from several of our peer institutions are, and many of our students report feeling challenged to do their best work.  Our seniors are completing culminating academic projects (a widely recognized high-impact practice) at a very high rate, and they value that experience.  Taking a long(ish) view of our NSSE data, there has been improvement in student reports on academic challenge for both first and senior year students and, although still not where we hope it would be, more of our students are reporting more quantitative reasoning opportunities in the curriculum.

By the time our students are seniors, they are reporting experiences with academics, peers, faculty, and the campus in terms that are roughly comparable to our peers.  There are a few plusses here, too.  Our seniors report that they are using good learning strategies, their faculty are using effective teaching practices, they have engaged in discussions “with diverse others,” and completed culminating and integrative educational experiences.

Unsurprisingly, there are real differences between our first-year and senior-year student responses.  Our first-year students are not convinced that we are using effective teaching practices, which may be a function of the transition from high school to college expectations.  In addition, our first-year students do not feel they are experiencing integrative learning opportunities, and they do not feel they are engaging in discussions with diverse others.

This interesting information.  We want our students to engage with difficult concepts, examine their worldviews, and be confident in their ability to learn both broadly and within their major.  Based on our NESSE data, this appears to be happening by senior year, but our first year students are not reporting this at all.

Over the past five years, WCSU has done a lot to make our goals transparent to our students. We have revised our general education curriculum to reflect common learning outcomes that we believe are essential to a liberal arts degree, published four-year plans, and added a first year navigation course.  Great.  Perhaps these steps account for some of the improvements in our NSSE scores overall.  However, we should not be satisfied yet, because our students are still not fully engaged with or aware of our great plans for their education.

Here’s a radical idea–let’s clarify things for our first-year students. Can we make those big ideas about their whole education visible to our students right from the start? Here are three suggestions to that might help us communicate our intentions more clearly.

  1. The First Year Course. Let’s build a couple of conversations about the holistic of a liberal arts degree into every FY course.  Part one of that conversation can focus on just describing the rationale behind the components of a degree (general education, major, minor/certifications) and the related experiences that might be considered enhancements (study-abroad, internships, etc.).  This conversation should take place prior to advising for the spring semester.  Part two could happen at the end of the semester. Take a moment to ask the students what they have learned.  Give them a writing prompt that encourages them to draw connections between their courses.  Then ask them to consider what they think they need to learn to make those connections more clear and encourage them to get those experiences in the next year.
  2. Introductory Courses. In all 100 level courses, let’s describe and discuss our pedagogical approach with our students.  We should not be repeating high school: college is different. We put more control into our students’ hands and we are more focused on questions than clear, short answers.  Let’s clue our students in to these new expectations with direct conversations about how the higher education environment should differ from their experiences with education.  Give them some direct examples of how this might work.  For example, show them the difference between a quiz for memorization and a quiz for integrative thinking.  Then they will know we have a plan and it is not to trick them. This might help students see our teaching strategies as effective at an earlier stage in their education. It might also help them build effective learning strategies.
  3. Everything Else. So, who about those conversations with diverse others?  This is both the easiest and hardest change to make.  It is easy because there is no subject that is not informed by experiences of different groups of people.  From the histories we tell, to access to the arts, to land use, or genetically modified foods, we have unique perspectives that deserve consideration.  As an institution, higher education is uniquely responsible for fostering conversations that examine these issues from many perspectives. It is our job to help our students develop skill in sorting through fact, opinion, and probabilities in thoughtful and civil ways.  It is hard to achieve this because sometimes our differences are complicated and intimidating and we are unsure of how to navigate the conflicts.  Still, we should be working to gain full participation in these conversations in every single course we teach. This means we must be intentional about fostering inclusive conversations and brave about addressing conflict.  It is a challenge, but I am certain we are up to this task.

If we take these steps, we might be able to close the difference between the impressions our first-year and senior-year students are having of their education.  Maybe we can engage them sooner so they can enjoy this experience from the start.

 

Innovative Pedagogies, Thinking

Project 100

Last week I focused on the notion of slow education as a counter to the high-speed culture that surrounds us.  I suggested that we shift away from the impulse to cover lots of material and toward a more reflective exploration of ideas. There is nothing new about my proposal.  It neatly describes a old fashioned seminar approach to learning.  Before we had access to every book ever written, we had to make do with a little less.  This, perhaps, inspired more selectivity in the assignments and more time for discussion.  Sounds like slow education to me.

However, those old-fashioned seminars were generally populated by the lucky few who had experienced a robust K-12 education, raised with the assumption that they were “college material.”  Those students had been preparing for seminars their entire lives.  Much to the betterment of society, we are inviting many more students to college these days. Not all have had this preparation for slower thinking.  Even those who did have access to great schools and college-preparatory programs did not grow up in a reflective culture.  The students in front of us were raised for bytes and speed. We need to teach our students how to do slow education.

So, I’ve been thinking about how to assist students in the transition from quick summaries, multiple choice exams, and “passing classes” to the slow, reflective learners we want them to be.  I am not so far removed from the habits of young (and not so young) adults that I don’t know that this is a big shift. We can’t expect our students to jump into slow education.  They need help learning to learn differently. This leads me to an idea I have been trying to figure out for a few years now.  I call it Project 100.

Project 100 is the idea that we should design our 100 level courses to intentionally transition students from passive to active learners. Instead of putting students in survey courses that go over the high points of anthropology or psychology or history, let’s design 100 level classes focused on doing anthropology or psychology or history.  Most universities already have “doing” courses, but they tend to be reserved for the major, and only after the introductory surveys.  I think we have it all wrong.  Putting students in survey courses in their first year of college just asks them to receive information, no matter how hard we try to engage them. These courses give a clear message to be passive. So, let’s ditch the survey course (or rather, save it for the 200 level and revise the goals) and ask our first year students to dive in to doing.

We can do this in any discipline–biology, business, art, or sociology–it really does not matter. We just have to help our students experience the joys and frustrations of developing a research question and then attempting to answer it.  Instead of relying on surveys of a field, let’s organize the first year of college in such a way that our students become amateur scholars (detectives?) empowered to drive the curriculum themselves, by virtue of collaborating with peers and faculty in the development of research questions.

We could then re-map the first year so that students complete a balance of these 100 level doing courses in STEM, Social Sciences, Humanities, and the Arts.  We’ll save a little room in the schedule for some of the disciplinary foundations students will need (theory for our musicians, anatomy and physiology for our nurses, etc.), but the rest of the first year will simply focus on this kind of question driven learning that puts education in the hands of the students.  Toss in an FY orientation class and students should be fully transitioned from passive to active learners by the end of the first year.

Now, I bet you are wondering… is this still slow education?  Sure.  To do this kind of active, question driven class, we are going to have to abandon lists in favor of discovery.  We will take the time to develop a research question with our students, first intuitively, then by exploring some scholarship related to the topic. Then we will be focused on figuring out how to answer that question (introductory methods only).  We will be unburdened by the notion that we need to cover the history of a discipline and free to dig into just one idea.  There will be lots of work, to be sure, but the work will be limited to introductory tools and methods. This will leave lots of time to discuss ideas and tools, test them, and even toss them out when we fail to see their value.  All we have to focus on is helping our students discover ways to answer the questions they have devised with us. If we are really lucky, we will all leave with next questions in mind.

If we do it right, our students will leave their first year of college confident in their ability to lead discussions, collaborate with others, wrestle with new ideas, and capable of forming questions. They will not know a lot of detail about any particular discipline, but they will have foundational tools for learning that can support them as they begin to grapple with theory and history. Those foundational tools are exactly what our students need to bring to those nice, slow seminars, don’t you think?

 

 

Higher Education, Innovative Pedagogies, Thinking

Slow Education

Well, it isn’t at all newsworthy to observe that it was a very warm weekend. Here in the Northeastern United States we experienced temperatures hovering around the 100-degree mark, which is hot even for July. Fool that I am I do not have air conditioning in my home.  I really prefer unconditioned air whenever possible. Genius that I am I live in a home shaded by trees and next to a lake.  It was plenty hot at my house, but we sat in the shade, sipped our various iced beverages, and did what the weather required…we slowed down.

Like a school closing blizzard in February, I confess, I revel in the luxury of just giving in to nature’s forces and not doing whatever I had planned to do.  Ambitions fade away in the face of temperatures too high or too low to navigate.  Instead, I am forced to just be.  Every time this kind of day happens, I am reminded just how wonderful that just being can be. Indeed, for me this is the very condition necessary for new ideas grow.

This week’s slowdown has reminded me of Neil Postman’s, Teaching as a Conserving Activity. This publication from 1979 was Postman’s re-imagining of arguments made in his earlier work, Teaching as a Subversive Activity. Though some saw this follow up as a reversal, it wasn’t really.  As Postman put it “Education is best conceived of as a thermostatic activity” (p. 25), offering a counter-argument to the direction of the culture in which it resides. He goes on to say,

 The thermostatic view of education is, then, not ideology-centered. It is balance-centered…Its aim at all times is to make visible the prevailing biases of a culture and then, by employing whatever philosophies of education, to oppose them.   In the thermostatic view of education, you do not “hold” philosophies. You deploy them

Now you may think this an interesting thought given all of the discussion of ideology on our campuses and the current state of political discourse, and it is. But I am thinking at a higher level of abstraction.  The strongest biases at work in our culture right now are fueled by our technological and media environments. These environments argue for speed and quantity.  We want more information, more entertainment, more action, and we want it fast.  We cannot have news feeds that have not changed in the last 10 minutes. It is exhausting.

We are not immune to this in higher education.  Our curriculum suffers from this impulse for more, more, more.  A typical liberal arts major once took up only a third of a student’s educational experience, leaving ample room for minors, semesters abroad, or even changing one’s mind about what to study.  Now liberal arts majors are approaching half of the credits in an undergraduate degree and changing majors is hazardous at best. 

We are also packing our degrees with other must haves–courses outside of the major that we require because we think students need them.  It is no longer enough to have general education requirements to serve as a foundation for college level learning and to insure students understand the ways questions are asked and answered in many disciplines. Now we want our students to take particular general education classes, further limiting their options to make decisions about their own learning.

Our classes are also in an interesting state.  Not all, of course, but many classes include an amount of reading and work that might be fine if it were a student’s only class, but in a typical full-time load it is impossible to finish. We are mirroring our hectic culture by saying read more, read faster, go, go, go.  Not enough time? Skim and get the highlights a la our news feeds. 

It is just too much.  Our fear of missing some important idea (FOMI?) is leading to an educational experience that fosters stress, shallowness, and a lack of reflection.  If we keep adding to the lists of things our students have to know, how will they ever master some of the fundamentals? When will they have time to learn from mistakes? Where is revision in their learning process? And how will they ever have a moment of insight?

Let’s slow down.  Let’s do a little less and see if we can all learn a little more.  Let’s remember that revision, reflection, and repeated engagement with a few ideas are the building blocks that will prepare our students to navigate the sea of ideas they will encounter after graduation.  Let’s remember that important dates and facts are readily available in digital resources everywhere, but the ability to engage and argue with them productively is in no way intuitive, so we should spend our time on that. Let’s be realistic about how much anyone can really do in a day, a week, or a semester and design for that.  

Let’s be that counter-balance to the larger cultural narrative that privileges quantity and speed.  Let’s focus on creating an environment that gives all of us time to think and remember how much we can learn from struggling with just one idea.  Let’s do slow education.