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. 

 

 

 

Agency, Critical Thinking, Higher Education

The Importance of Cultivating Agency

In all of education, and especially in higher education, we are committed to cultivating strong critical thinking in our students.  Many of our classes provide students with essential tools for critical thinking as we try to help them understand statistical and scientific methods of analysis, forms of argument and evidence, and even the values from which our questions emerge.  We strive to shake our students from their comfortable senses of reality so that they may form their own understandings of truth and what makes a good life. We want them to leave us empowered, confident in their ability to navigate the myriad questions and decisions they will face in their lives. These efforts are our passion and our joy.

Sometimes, however, we need to think a little deeper about what we want to accomplish with these critical thinking skills.  We must consider the cultural contexts in which our students have been raised and ask ourselves just how much critical thinking they can take. Lately I’ve been noticing that a lot of our young people are a little freaked out.  There have been lots of articles in the popular press about this, and I don’t know what the real figures are about anxiety, but I will say that there are some real and frightening things that have happened during this group’s childhood that gives them the right to be scared.

Consider Columbine, Virginia Tech, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Parkland.  Gun violence isn’t just a story for the unlucky few, it is a dominant narrative in all of our student’s lives. Then there’s September 11th and the subsequent wars, literal and cultural, that never seem to end.  Terrorism is a reality in the United States, not just something we can say is happening elsewhere.  Oh, and let’s not forget climate change, which is starting to scare our young people a great deal.  They are wondering about the feasibility of planning anything in the face of the looming crises of rising waters and shrinking resources. No wonder they are a little shaken.

Now listen, people have had rough childhoods before.  I grew up at the tail end of fears about nuclear disaster and war and lots of my friends were truly terrified of that potential reality.  I knew many veterans of Vietnam, and a fair number of conscientious objectors, who were suffering the after-effects of that war.  Then there were the wars before that, and the Great Depression, and dustbowls, and segregation, and poverty, and so on.  Disasters and injustice have always been here, but that’s not how it feels to this generation. The media messages are universally devastating, positive narratives are shaky, threats are nearby, and the future, at least in terms of the climate, appears to be out of their control.

So what about critical thinking? Well it is more important than ever. We have to give our students the tools to decode probabilities, if for no other reason than to relieve some of their fear levels. We have to show them how science and technology may have caused some of the problems of climate change, but they might also be tools to some of the solutions.  We have to teach them to argue with bad evidence and to identify good evidence, even if it is just the best evidence to date. We have to show them that they are capable of making a case for the kind of world they want to live in.  We need to recount the scope of the history of changes that have made most of us ashamed of our bigotries and biases so that our students have a sense of how far we’ve come.

And then we need to take another step after all of that. We need to cultivate agency. As we consider creating the necessary moments in our curriculum when we disrupt our students’ assumptions about what is real, we also have to consider creating pathways to agency.  We can’t flinch from the complexities of the world. There are real dangers and disagreements that have to be sorted out, but we cannot leave our students without a sense that they might be able to sort out at least one part of the messes they perceive.

So, let’s look through our course plans and the experiences we are designing and consider building in some opportunities to discover that agency. Don’t just show them the problems, show them some of the ways we might start looking for solutions.  Perhaps there are small things that you can actually tackle in your classes–things like community service, or a campus culture initiative, or promoting good environmental practices.  Perhaps there is some group research that can become a policy recommendation that your students might take on.  Maybe there is room to connect with neighborhoods in productive ways.  These things will be small, but if they truly flow from the learning context, they can have a profound impact on our students’ confidence in their ability to make positive change in the world.

We really need to do this.  We have to balance the critical skills with that sense of agency.  It is this sense of agency that will help all of us move from anxiousness to action.  We may not believe in our agency everyday, but those little glimmers might just make us hopeful enough to use our critical thinking to make things better.

 

 

Higher Education, Technology

The Media Ecology Lens

When I first moved into administrative roles in higher education, one of my mentors gave me the following advice, “don’t lose sight of your discipline.”  Last weekend, I managed to follow that advice and attend the annual conference of my discipline, media ecology. A subset (or perhaps a metaset) of the field of communication, media ecology helps me think deeply about the many forces shaping and re-shaping higher education.

For the uninitiated, media ecology grew out of Marshall McLuhan’s observation that the “medium is the message.” (See Understanding Media, 1964). From this simple turn of phrase springs a complex set of questions and scholarship that touches on every aspect of how we understand and act in the world. In my doctoral studies at New York University, Neil Postman and Christine Nystrom explicated McLuhan’s observation in reference to adulthood, education, language, politics, the sacred and the profane. From cave painting to television screens, to the binary codes that now dominate our lives, media ecologists are obsessed with how shifts in dominant media of communication shape our realities.

As provost, this obsession can be very helpful.  I regularly receive messages from various companies trying to sell me the next great gadget for student success. Since I am responsible for university outcomes (read, retention and graduation rates), I am inclined to consider these pitches, at least for a minute or two. While there may be some promising ideas in the many commercials in my inbox, I always start with the question, what kind educational environment will this gadget create?

Take, for example, the notion of student engagement.  For as long as I have been in higher education, faculty have endeavored to develop strategies that might engage  students in conversation in the classroom.  The very idea that we want conversation suggests that we are imagining an educational environment that is small enough to facilitate a robust dialogue (rather than simple questions and answers).  It also suggests that education is something other than content delivery.  Through this lens of the conversation, faculty are content experts, but their role is to draw out ideas and responses from students, ostensibly to clarify and refine understandings of the topic at hand, and ideally to discover new insights through that dialogue. 

What I have described is a seminar, ideally located in a room with a large table for students to sit around, or at least chairs that can move into circles. This kind of learning environment relies on small class sizes to allow for an authentic back and forth from all participants.  We seem to measure much of what we do against that imagined context. Yet, most of us only get to teach a small seminar now and then. The rest of the time, we are in medium sized classes (30-40 students) or even large lectures (100 or so students).  In these settings, conversations tend to shift to questions and answers, with little back and forth, not because we don’t want it, but because that is what can be accommodated with this number of students. The setting re-enforces the Q&A vs. conversation message, by putting students in rows, or if we’re lucky, moveable chairs or clusters of tables, all facing the professor.  

In this more usual environment, we then try to find paths to engagement.  We hold the ideal of the seminar in our heads and try to replicate it in some way. Each attempt has implications for the role of the professor and the goals of the course. Each attempt is different from a conversation.

Some faculty combine lectures with breakout sessions.  They introduce a topic and the move students into small groups so they converse with each other, and then they are brought back together to report out. This approach can be very effective, and it requires no expensive technology (something that is nice for my budget woes).  There are dangers of course, students stray from the topic and choose to see this as time to talk about other things. But, when discussion topics are well-structured and there is some sense of obligation to dig into the ideas (points for participation, for example), this approach can move passive listeners to active learners.

I favor this approach, but I must acknowledge that it isn’t as discovery-oriented as the seminar because the questions must all be crafted in advance.  Professors will have done their best to simulate discovery in the smaller groups and the sharing can lead to productive clarifications and imaginative ideas, but it is one step removed from the back and forth of conversation.  This approach must be more scripted.

In larger classes, some faculty are trying to employ technological solutions.  One such solution is the clicker or “student response system.” The clicker is a popular tool in large classes, letting faculty conduct mini quizzes and polls throughout the class in order to check understanding of topics and potentially develop strategies to clarify misconceptions. The most sophisticated versions of this tool allows for all kinds of data analysis on each student (attendance, right or wrong answers, skipped answers/lack of participation) and so on.  When managing a larger group of students, the clicker can push students to listen more actively, shaking them out of daydreams and confusion. Clickers can even help students who don’t usually raise their hands find a way to participate in a non-threatening way.  It isn’t a bad solution to combatting passivity and boredom in the classroom, and it can foster more inclusive participation.  However, it is in no way an environment about creating learning together. This class is about mastery of content/concepts.

Looking at these three scenarios, it is pretty clear to me that classrooms and class sizes are primary determinants of student engagement strategies. With each adjustment to the size and space, we see a change in the definition of the relationship between students and faculty, and we see a change in the overall goals of the course.  That doesn’t mean that only seminars are good learning environments. Each of these approaches has value. Indeed, sometimes students need the experience of the more structured learning environments before they can be successful participants in a seminar. But it is important to consider each size and pedagogy as part of a portfolio of learning environments at a university, always looking for the right balance of experiences.

So, what of media ecology? Well, we media ecologists tend to move from macro to micro and back to macro perspectives with great fluidity.  We might look at the structure of education in terms of interlocking systems (public, private, elite, accessible, etc.), and focus our attention to socio-political context of higher education is driving the metrics of evaluation of our successes.  We might look at physical environments and class size, as I have here, and focus our attention on the intersection of pedagogy and economics.  Or we might drill down to the impact of a particular technology (clickers) on a learning environment, examining the outcomes in terms of the conceptions of education implied.  Each of these approaches sets the boundaries of our analysis in a new place, but the common thread is this: we know that environments have implications, they are not neutral.

As the person charged with overseeing the academic programs of my university, this is the most important thing to know; environments are not neutral.  This lens shapes my decisions about technology investments, to be sure, but of much greater importance, it forces me to look at the interconnection between space, time, class sizes, schedules, and conceptions of education.  Media ecology demands that we think about the interconnections between these things, and not fall for the promises of a one-size-fits-all solution.

Most of all, media ecology reminds me to always ask two important questions in every situation in which I might want to try a new educational strategy: 1. What problem am I trying to solve? and 2. What are the potential unintended consequences of that solution? These are the questions that can keep this whole higher education enterprise honest.