logo


This is the last segment of a three-part blog series that I mentioned in a recent video that is meant to get students and parents to relax about locking in a college major. In the previous blog post, I said college is all about perspective and learning how to learn, and not just the “fun” stuff like art and music. In this post, I want to add this advice:

Students, a little STEM won’t kill you. Your aptitude and happiness matter, and you need to know yourself and what makes you happy. But a job will also increase your happiness. After teaching arts entrepreneurship for years, I know that many music, art, dance, and theater majors hated my class. They hated thinking about taxes and contracts, and they thought having an elevator pitch was stupid. But years later, I continue to get emails and cards telling me that because of their website, they now have a thriving dance studio, or that they came up with a new way to price seats and saved their theater company, or that Yo-Yo Ma liked their elevator pitch so much, he made time for a free lesson. Few people get to follow their passion entirely (that is why most of us have hobbies.)

The world needs more artists and humanists, but being able to make some technology, manipulate a spreadsheet, and analyze numerical data are a good investment. Employers want to hire broadly educated graduates. Both colleges and students need to ask the really hard question: Are you really broadly educated if you took only one science course or avoided every course with statistics? A little pain here can provide a real gain.

It is possible to be successful regardless of major, but all of life involves tradeoffs and different levels of risks. Think now about what you really want out of college and make choices accordingly.

Your best hedge against uncertainty is to make the most of the divergent opportunities in college. Go to the best college you can afford: Yes, the more money you borrow, the more you have to pay back, and the more your major will matter. Take the best professors—no matter how early in the morning they teach or how scared you are of the subject. Discover what you love, but ALSO pursue more than just your passions.

I would tell Goucher students—and all students: Become broadly educated. For initial salary and employment, your major matters, but you can alter those statistics with some well-chosen electives. Take some things for fun, but not everything. This is your best opportunity to change what you are good at. Become a professional learner.

Goucher, like all colleges require math and science, but do more than the minimum. Learn enough STEM and especially quantitative analysis and (http://cew.georgetown.edu/recovery2020) coding, so you can learn more later. (When your children need braces, your priorities will change.) An early internship or a good professional mentor can help you find some useful electives.

This is not an appeal for every philosophy major to double major in business!! Do not major in something you hate! But death and taxes are unavoidable, and you should not avoid every business, science, or math course just because it seems boring or it is not your current strength. The same applies to the science majors: Ultimately you will want to understand what your research means to people (the humanities) and be able to explain this (writing and communication). All hard science and no fuzzy discussion will limit your career–and your happiness. Expanding your interests will pay enormous dividends later in life.

I teach music–jazz history. That might seem like a “fun” elective, but think about what music means. Nothing, actually. And yet we think it does. Music (without words) has no concrete meaning—it is abstract—it means only what you or your culture make it mean. That makes music the MOST political art form and the most political cultural artifact you will ever encounter because all of the meanings are culturally specific.

All of the music you hate (or don’t know) sounds alike, so if someone says all country or hip-hop music sounds the same, or all trumpet players sound the same, they don’t know much about those forms of music.

In learning about music or art, you will also learn about HOW cultures make meaning. You will learn not only how different types of cultures produce meaning, but how meaning is created. That is a very useful thing if you want to understand what your patients or clients are really trying to tell you. So the arts are more important than you might think, but not because they are “culture.”

The arts are one of the best ways to experience other worlds and ways of creating meaning. They offer an entrance to hundreds of other ways of knowing; and your future will require that you understand a variety of perspectives. No wonder STEM students are being advised to think about STEAM (STEM + Arts.)

One thing is clear: A college degree is more valuable than ever. But at the same time, it is only a baseline. More and more jobs will require a graduate degree AND continued learning. Learn to be more than half a thinker: you need to be both hard and fuzzy. A true liberal arts education like we offer here at Goucher means studying both humanities and science in depth.

 

This is the second segment of a three-part blog series about why students (and their parents) shouldn’t stress about choosing a major. It complements a video I also recently posted.  In the previous blog post, I talked about my own college experience and how it taught me to think in complex ways, and from different disciplinary angles. In this installment, I present recent research to question my own hypothesis (that a college major doesn’t matter), as well as to argue for the values of the liberal arts in the long run.  

As a humanist, I am distressed at the recent research that demonstrates both that your major matters (for starting salary and unemployment) and that the humanities do relatively poorly by this measure. Anthony Carnevale at the Georgetown Center of Education and the Workforce  found that the four majors that provided the least economic rewards were (from the bottom up) psychology and social work, education, arts, and humanities, with engineers and computer scientists making significantly more money right away and even after graduate school. Carnevale and his colleagues have repeatedly discovered that your choiceof major substantially affects employment prospects and earnings. Majors that are linked to occupations generally provide better employment, and being able to make technology is better for finding employment than just being able to use it.  STEM graduates have lower unemployment than do arts and humanities grads.

Humanists have decided to do their own studies, and the AACU found (http://www.aacu.org/leap/documents/nchems.pdf ) that over time, humanities and social science majors actually surpass those in professional and pre-professional majors during the peak performing years (ages 56-60).  This was widely reported as “Liberal Arts Grads Win Long-Term,” but even in these articles, the data are explicit that STEM grads make more money—even when you average in all of those graduates degrees. With no graduate degree, humanities majors (on average) close the gap, but they never reach the unemployment levels of professional, pre-professional, and STEM majors.

As a scientist, I look at the data and question my hypothesis.  It is fine to argue for the values of the liberal arts (even in Forbes), but we also need to look at the evidence.

The most recent study (this time from three Yale economists tells us that the difference in starting pay gets extended in a recession. They argue first that poor labor markets disrupt early careers by reducing wages and employment. They also found that while your chances of full-time employment eventually even out over seven years, the negative wage effect persists—forever. These effects are differential across majors, and the initial wage gaps across majors widen and persist in a recession. Apparently these effects are double in our recent great recession.

We should not ignore this evidence. When it comes to employment and wages, engineering is a better bet than history. If you are an English major seeking a higher salary, law school is a good choice.  While I’d like everyone to be able to follow their passion, that is surely easier to do if your parents can afford it. If you need to pay for college, you cannot ignore the data on majors. (By the way, the reason I was a chemistry major? My mother insisted.)

As a humanist, however, I ask what all this means. Employers continue to say that they want critical thinkers and lifelong learners,  which Goucher students are taught to be by the time they graduate. Jobs are changing faster than they ever have. Future employers will reward those who can adapt and continue to learn. There are plenty of opportunities to learn technical skills (https://developers.google.com/university/) for free on the Internet. A technical or professional major will probably continue to provide an initial wage and employment boost, but unless you keep learning, those skills will eventually be supplanted by others. College is about perspective and learning how to learn, which we emphasize a lot here at Goucher.

You probably learn somewhat differently in the humanities and the sciences. While the humanities are not merely qualitative, and the sciences are much more than quantitative analysis, thinking about proficiency in both is useful. You will need to continue learning in both ways to have the life you want.

 

Read Part III here

I recently sent out a video message to the members of Goucher’s Class of 2018 and their families. In it, I try to allay the academic anxiety that paralyzes both students and parents alike. In this three-part blog series, I will explain why there’s no reason to worry and why a student’s major takes back seat to his or her ability to think critically, using a variety of perspectives that are enriched by a true liberal arts education. Here’s the first part:

I had nine majors in college. I tried Japanese, physics, comp lit, and more, before graduating in chemistry (and one course shy of that double major in ancient history.) I still felt “uneducated,” so I did an M.A. in “humanities” (what we jokingly called the “Evelyn Wood School of Western Culture.”) The humanities and the sciences BOTH remain critical to my thinking.

In the sciences, I learned to look at data and crunch numbers. I learned to ask better questions and to be suspicious of theories (and results that adhered too closely to theories). Most importantly, if the data did not support the hypothesis, I learned I needed to change my mind and really look at what the data were telling me. Science taught me how to have an open mind.

The humanities taught me that analysis is always influenced by perspective and that everything has meaning to someone. I learned to ask better questions, be suspicious of theories (and results that adhered too closely to theories) and most importantly, that if the data did not support the hypothesis, I needed to change my mind and look for what someone else might see in the data. The humanities also taught me how to have an open mind.

Data are awesome, but (almost) all of them are relative, and meaning can be found (almost) anywhere for someone. Both scientists and humanists make the really big discoveries when they look at a problem from a new perspective and ask a new question. In a way, these lessons can (and should) be learned in any major, but I find that without an education in both humanities and sciences, you are only half a thinker.

My major didn’t really matter. College taught me how to think in complex ways, and it did that by forcing me to look at problems from different disciplinary angles. We call the different majors “disciplines,” and disciplines imply focus. Students often think that the different departments study different types of things, but it is really that each asks different types of questions. A discipline constricts the sorts of questions you ask of data. That focus is essential for deep understanding, but we (in academia) also recognize that change of perspective is also useful, and so we are constantly creating “interdisciplinary” or “multidisciplinary” programs.

Most colleges, Goucher included, also try to balance these needs by having both a broad interdisciplinary core and majors that allow for more depth in one discipline. It sounds good, but general education requirements such as Goucher’s liberal education curriculum  are often seen as a chore to be finished before students get on to what they really want to do. Because we are organized in colleges by disciplines, it is also natural that our loyalty and attention tends to be on “our” students in “our” majors.

The jobs of the future (and indeed happiness in your future) will probably require both qualitative and quantitative work. Most colleges will let you major in one or the other (humanities or sciences in very broad terms), but your thinking and your potential will be advanced by depth in both areas.

 

Read Part II of this blog.

Remember evolution? Random mutations create variations, some of which will be better suited to individual environments and will be more likely to reproduce (i.e. survive). Two points here might be useful to our conversation about higher education. First, it is really the environment that decides who survives and prospers. You can produce all of the yellow flowers you want, but if the bees prefer the red ones, your yellow ones are going to struggle. Second, especially in a time when the environment is changing rapidly (think ice age or economic downturn) more diversity gives you more chances for survival.

American colleges are already significantly more diverse than those in other countries (which are largely funded and controlled by governments), but that diversity of type, discipline and funding is not enough. Colleges run under an enormously fragile business model, based upon a radically different environment and set of assumptions that are now being questioned—all at once. We expanded colleges, grew enrollment and (most worrying) borrowed money to build more facilities, assuming that there would always be more students.  In case you missed it, the number of high school graduates is decreasing and the number of students enrolled nationally in college dropped 1.5% this fall (after a 1.8% drop last year) http://chronicle.com/article/Enrollments-Slipped-This-Fall/143573/ 

Our problem is that we sell one product to a very precise demographic and we only sell it once a year. We need to diversify what we offer and to whom.  No, I don’t think American colleges are about to become extinct, but we need to recognize that all of our institutions, degrees and audiences are too much alike, and this is very dangerous in a time of drastic environmental change. Not everyone will make it in the coming ice age, and it is far too early to see what the new paradigm will be, so we need more experimentation and more diversity of approaches.

The government’s desire for some accountability in where financial aid goes (in the new the White House college rating system) is hardly the only reason colleges should be leading the movement to establish better outcome measures.  A whole range of new products, services and institutions are sprouting up to help employers find employees with the skills they want.

Open Education Alliance, for example, is a partnership between a group of employers (Google, Intuit and AT&T) and alternative education providers (Khan and Udacity) that aims both to make “high quality education” (i.e. training) available and connect these new learners with jobs. So instead of a traditional BA degree, these companies say they are willing to hire you, if you have mastered the right set of learning outcomes (i.e. badges). Don’t complain too much—this anti-degree will be a terrific new opportunity for many who can’t afford college.

An even wilder mutation is Knack! Here you play games to discover your “knacks” which might indicate to a future employer that your “behavioral profile” is “creative,” “bold” “strategic” or “perceptive” or that you have skills in finance, sales or the arts (what they call “career knacks”)   Games have already been proven to be great teachers, so this too will surely evolve. NYU, Bain & Co and Shell are early adopters.

So much of what we do is driven by our endless quest to become just a little more like Harvard—or at least a little more like where we as faculty went to graduate school.  As Clayton Christensen points out in The Innovative University: Changing the DNA of Higher Education from the Inside Out , all of these innovations (summer break, electives, majors, GenEd, specialized departments, tenure, instruction by TAs, grading on a curve, and big-time football) were meant as specific solutions for Harvard, and ultimately, Harvard had and has the enormous resources required to even attempt the radical plan of trying to be both an English undergraduate residential college and a German research university.  As countless colleges try to imitate Harvard with a fraction of the resources, we end up with one unique and perhaps bizarre model and lots of poor imitations. Maybe being a woolly mammoth is not the best strategy right now.

But the best reason for more diversity in higher education is that it will better serve our students. We know from every study on the affect of college on students that our influence is somewhat random: college can either close your mind and make you more resistant to change, or make you a more autonomous critical thinker. There is not good info on why the same college can have such different effects. (Averages are not very useful here.) It makes me nervous to think that learning styles are that determined, but I also know that people are different and where one learning environment helps student A blossom, it might bore student B to tears. In the end, fit does matter.

We talk about fit all the time in admissions, but perhaps we need to expand this discussion. While there are indeed plenty of good practices that work in general, surely there are also different learning environments and different programs and strategies that will best support different populations in different circumstances.

If colleges are mammals, maybe you think Knack!, Open Education Alliance and even MOOCs are the cockroaches of our world. But in nature, there are lots of different ways for organisms to prosper. In a changing environment, organisms and institutions that can change rapidly and/or produce more diversity of options, have a greater chance of survival. If there is really an ice age coming, you might want to reconsider the chances of the cockroach.

We need (1) to find a way to encourage greater diversity of mission and practice in colleges and (2) find ways to reward different types of success.

Everyone hates student course evaluations. They don’t measure what students are learning or even how much good teaching is occurring (although it is probably not good to have persistent high GPAs and low student evaluations). At best, they tell us what students perceive.

It also turns out that most student evaluation forms have one predictive question, usually some version of “Would you recommend this course to your friends?” or “Your general assessment of this teacher?” All the rest is commentary.

I find it can be useful to see if a professor gets consistently low marks for “supportive of diverse ideas in the classroom,” but “How prepared was your professor for class?” or “Was the professor knowledgeable?” are completely useless.

There are great new survey tools, with tested questions,  and these should be required reading for anyone thinking of redoing their course evaluations, but student course evaluations should mostly be about improving teaching and retention.

1. Your course evaluations should reflect your institutional student goals. Reminding both faculty and students in every course will help bring focus and integration to key campus learning outcomes.

If you want to be the creativity place, then every course should ask “How much did this course improve your ability to think and work creatively?” If you want to improve the critical thinking of your graduates, the easiest and cheapest way is simply to remind students (and faculty!) that they do this in every course. Naming what we do is itself a pedagogy that works.

Every degree and department should have learning outcomes and these too should be reflected in every course evaluation: “How much did this course improve your ability to manage a business?” “How much did this course contribute to your ability to solve complex problems?”

Not every course is aligned with a single student learning outcome, and administrators will need to be sensitive to low scores in courses designed with a different purpose, but having a small and focused list of outcomes and evaluating them in every course is an extremely low cost way of improving focus.

2. Your course evaluations should reflect high impact practices and research-based pedagogies.
“How much did this course expand your appreciation for diverse ideas?” “How much did this course expand your ability to collaborate and work with others?” While these again are perceptions, they are perceptions that matter. I should also be measuring students’ actual improvement in self-regulation or motivation, but I also want to know what they think: “How much did this course expand your ability to think about your own thinking?” “How much did this course bolster your motivation to succeed in college?”

If we want faculty to make more use of active learning then asking “What percentage of class time did you spend in active learning?” (or negatively, “in passive listening?”) This will vary in different types of courses, and again, administrators will need to be sensitive to different goals. Most studio, lab and art courses will score high here, but that is not a measure of their relative quality. Still, if faculty think we lecture only 40% of the time, and students say it is 80%, this is important is good to know.

(I will note that in more than a decade of reading tenure files and sitting through P&T meetings, I find that most faculty and administrators are highly sensitive to the problematic nature of the numeric part of course evaluations. Institutions need to avoid averages, but I have never seen a tenure case fail only because of low numbers. I also think we should use course evaluations primarily for development—in the same way we should use assignments and assessments for how they can help students. I know we credential eventually, but if I wanted to spend my life sorting, I would have joined the postal service.)

If we are trying to improve teaching at our institutions, then maybe we should ask “How useful was the feedback for improving your work?”

None of this is a substitute for real assessment of learning outcomes. We need better tools to measure the actual critical thinking, creativity and cultural sensitivity of our students. At the moment, we often use the poor surrogates of grades or distribution (you took an art class or studied abroad). Requiring something only tells us about quantity or exposure (100% of students were exposed to science or passed a test in a foreign language–—yeah us!) but we need to understand about the quality of student learning. In the meantime, we should keep doing everything we can to improve learning and provide incentives for faculty to try proven pedagogies: course evaluations are low-hanging fruit.

In the end, you are what you measure. When we measure and assess, we set values and priorities. All colleges measure, but what we measure is often irrelevant. Measuring for accreditation will do little to improve our graduation rates. While it is true that much of what we do is hard to measure, or at least hard to quantify, that should not deter us. I’d rather have high standards and improving assessments, but we are the people of judgment. We evaluate all day long. We just need to turn more of our attention to better evaluation of ourselves.

Rankings in higher education don’t measure quality. Mostly they measure the status or brand of a college, so more and better applicants means a higher rank. Beyond the historical elites, most of what the public knows about colleges comes from football and basketball, both of which are essentially advertising programs for colleges. This is part of why you see so much investment here: a more visible sports program does increase applications, and often substantially.

Schools also tout their alumni networks, where the big state schools will always have more quantity and the elite privates more quality. A Harvard or a Texas transcript is about status—neither says anything about what students actually learned.

Students with the right grades and SAT scores in high school can get into a range of good colleges. The best strategy for poor students is to attend the best college they can afford: in other words, most colleges will offer a steep discount to students with better SAT scores than their current students. Students, though, often want to go to the highest ranked college to which they were accepted, and parents will either pay or borrow more money to fill these dreams. This is where colleges make money.

The average debt for graduating seniors is now almost $30,000.  When graduates borrow more money, it is often because of want, not need. At least some of the problem with college debt is because parents and students don’t want to attend a less prestigious school.

So is it worth it? Is your Ivy-league education worth $100,000 or $200,000 more than your state school?

The status of an elite degree surely has some additional value in the job market, but parents increasingly want to know the return on investment. There will always be some parents willing to pay for bragging rights, but more parents will want to know how much learning per dollar you offer. Is there really ten times more learning at a four-year college or is it just ten times the price? Will a Nobel Laureate (or her TA) really be a good teacher for introductory economics? The “draft” plan at Johns Hopkins Krieger School of Arts and Sciences, to reduce the number of graduate students (but pay them higher stipends) has drawn criticism for the suggestion that with fewer grad students to teach and fewer TAs, faculty might need to teach 3 undergraduate + 1 graduate course a year instead of 2+2.

Will a course on a college campus have more interaction than an online course, or will the teacher just stand and deliver? Colleges need to be prepared to answer these questions and how they relate to pricing and value.

University pricing resembles wine pricing: there is enormous price variation in the market, but it is difficult to tell how different the actual products are. Both wine and higher education are subject to complicated rating systems and a belief that the experts can truly tell the difference, but the abundance of exceptions seems to undermine the basic value proposition. With more than 6000 blind tastings as evidence, the relationship between wine ratings and price is small and actually negative: on average even wine experts enjoy more expensive wines less when they do not know the price! It does not matter if expensive wine is not actually better, but it tastes better if we think it costs more.

Similarly, it ultimately does not matter if a student learns more with an Ivy League education. As long as everyone else believes it is better, it will be in high demand and continue to bestow genuine benefits. In the same way that a bottle of wine is about the quality of the experience, a college degree, in the current market, is really more about buying a credential or a degree than it is about buying learning. Both consumers and providers have been willing to continue their shared misconception, since little else could justify the massive price variation in both wines and education.

Still, value will be an increasingly important proposition in the college marketplace. Parents and students already make decisions based upon cost. As competition increases and accountability provides easier ways of comparing outcomes, liberal arts colleges especially will need to justify the added expense. Knowledge is now freely available on the internet, but that only increases the value of being able to find, sort, analyze, evaluate, and synthesize that knowledge. Colleges talk about critical thinking, but we need to do more to ensure we are increasing the complexity of the mental models of our students. Employers are clamoring for graduates with better communication and thinking skills, ethical reasoning and the ability to solve complex problems. That value will only increase.

The liberal arts are under attack largely because they are misunderstood. College is the best opportunity in your life to expand your world view, think about your own thinking, expand your imagination, focus your gaze, and most importantly to prepare for the unknown. That can be delivered in different ways and at different costs, but that is our value: preparing students to explore the unknown, where they will be required to analyze new information, reinterpret what they know and maybe even, change their minds.

It’s time for course evaluations and grading: no wonder we love the end of the semester so much! Course evaluations are flawed mostly because they do not really tell us what we want to know—what did students learn and did we change them?

This semester, I’ve decided to look at my course evaluations differently. I will still look at the ratings (we all like to be liked) and even more carefully at the comments about what to improve and what went wrong. But this time, I am going to look deeply for signs that students have changed, are considering change, or might change in the future—that is the whole point of Teaching Naked.

Really, on the last day of class, a student walks by me and says “I hate your class. It changed my life.” Naturally, I ran after this student to ask,
“I’m sorry you hated my class, can you tell me more?”
“It was all of that personal, thinking about thinking, blogging, and those #$%)!! cognitive wrappers But I did figure out that I need to rethink my major and career. I realized there is a connection between my past and what I want to do in the future. I realized that I can integrate my passions, and that I really do have something I now want to do. All of that self-reflection made my other classes both harder and easier too.”

What luck! We often have to wait 20 years for this transformation, and both the student and I got the payoff and feedback immediately. This does not happen very often, and maybe it shouldn’t, but this is the change most of us seek. I am also not sure I should take too much credit. It might have just been the right moment in this student’s life, and many of the other students clearly just hated, without the epiphany.

The danger here is that it is too easy to ignore negative criticism and hope that students will look back in 20-years and thank you. It is very true that the best lessons and courses often settle months or even years later, but since we don’t track this is any systematic way, we don’t really know the long-term impact of our courses in most cases.

Still, it seems we might aim for a balance. We all know that “you can fool all of the people all of the time” (attributed to Abraham Lincoln, P.T. Barnum and a few others) but for teachers and academics it might be better with the word change or convince: “you cannot change all of the people any of the time.” So this year, I will look for signs that I changed some of the people, some of the time, and in the process did not make too many others crazy.

In “What the Best College Teachers Do” Ken Bains sums up a lot of research as basically telling us neither high standards nor supportive nurturing make much difference on their own. Together, however, they are a powerful and life changing pedagogical strategy. I see this everywhere in my research: test more often, but make each lower stakes; provide more feedback, but be both supportive and critical; challenge students without putting them down. How then, can I balance the need both to push and support change, but without pushing students away. Few of them actually want change.

I am also not sure what success looks like yet. Like great art, a great course disturbs its audience. But if it is too disturbing, the audience may withdraw (figuratively or even literally). If it is too affirming, it is just entertainment; fun, but with no real impact. So while not an excuse for low student endorsement, we need to look at our courses evaluation both for signs that students were engaged, but also that they were disturbed. It may be too early to tell what is working, but I can’t wait 20 years.

At the end of August, President Obama outlined new proposals to make college more affordable and to develop a new rating system before the fall of 2015 that will appear in the existing College Scorecard. With the start of the semester, you might have missed the details, but the plan is essential reading—note that congress does not have to approve: this will happen. I applaud the effort. Students and parents need better ways to think about the cost/benefit of college, but if these new metrics become a singular way to judge the value of college, the conversation will be far too narrow. We will, however, only have ourselves to blame.

Despite our collective and constant pleas for prospective students to think more about fit than rankings, the US News rankings continue their stranglehold on how the public, and even many of us, think about higher education. We are not going to dissuade politicians or parents to give up looking for ways measure and rank something that is so important and expensive. The real question, and the place we should put our energy, is in creating better measures for what we do.

We have a choice. We can either develop our own measures of the learning that happens on our campuses, or prepare for the White House and others to measure less meaningful things. We need to do this quickly. Note that financial aid may eventually be tied to how we do in the new ratings: “In the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the president will seek legislation allocating financial aid based on these college ratings by 2018, once the ratings system is well established. Students can continue to choose whichever college they want, but taxpayer dollars will be steered toward high-performing colleges that provide the best value.” Ouch!

Let’s be fair. The objectives and the general thrust on outcomes are good. Parents and students easily confuse prestige with quality and college costs too much. It is hard to argue with the political pressure for a “a new ratings system to help students compare the value offered by colleges and encourage colleges to improve.” The US News rankings rely too heavily on input measures, and if we are going to be judged, it should not be on the students we attract, but on what we do for the students we have. The U.S. Department of Education says “These ratings will compare colleges with similar missions and identify colleges that do the most to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds as well as colleges that are improving their performance.” Faculty often say to me, “just bring us better students,” but surely the real measure of success is how different colleges improve the lives of similar students. But whatever we think, there will be a new ranking system soon.

Most of what are currently being considered as outcome indicators, are quantitative, but secondary measures like graduation rates or graduate earnings.  Walter M. Kimbrough has correctly pointed out that these need to be modified with a “degree of difficulty” measure (as in judging diving).   The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment and others  have developed other measures, but we need to do better. We must start measuring the change we hope to produce.

Prestige, better pay, better job opportunities and fun in fraternities are often seen as benefits of college. Indeed, networking and alumni connections are a valuable part of the college experience, but if we sell jobs or salaries as the only or even primary outcome measure, then we all become network facilitators.

We need instead to talk about how thinking and more complex mental models are the real engines of future success, a robust democracy and a better life. We will then, need to focus our attention on getting serious about measuring this. Are we actually changing our students and improving their ability to think?  Would they develop as quickly if we het left them alone or they got a job?  The answers may make us nervous, but we can’t improve without data.

If anyone from the White House is listening—we CAN measure learning! Please give us a chance to suggest, create and develop some better measures.

Today we launched a new teaching award in my school that will provide more support and aid for faculty groups or individuals to redesign a course or course sequence.  Technology may have increased the availability of knowledge, but it has only made critical thinking, analysis and the development of our students more important.  Technology makes course design more important than ever before, but it also creates new opportunities for rethinking the sequence of learning events.

Most of us have become very good at course delivery, but few of us have had training in course design. We could get by when course design meant selecting some content and a textbook, but it is more complicated now. According to the most recent student poll in the Almanac of Higher Education, students want instructors to make more us of course management systems, integrated use of laptops during class, online collaboration tools (like Google docs) and free online course content (like the Khan Academy).   If that sounds like a lot of work, it is, but improved course design is key to making our institutions better. This proposal is designed to help faculty find the time both to gain expertise and to develop better courses.

Since innovation and risk need to be encouraged, student course evaluations from the first two semesters of the new course will not be included in our merit or tenure decisions. You will note that some other “robust measure of success” will be required (also know as assessment), so hopefully this will encourage innovation in courses design and better assessment practices.   I am also offering up to $10,000 in financial support (including teaching relief) per proposal, but I can think of other incentives (fewer preparations, staff or TA support, perhaps) that might work where other funding is not available. I offer the entire set of guidelines below to any dean, provost or CTL director who wants to borrow the idea. (This is a model. Not an actual call for proposals outside of Meadows School faculty.)

 

WHO?  Any FT or regular faculty member may submit a proposal. Some priority will be given to groups where more than one person delivers the same course or departments who envision larger projects (like the redesign of an entire sequence.)

WHAT? A typical proposal might include teaching relief or summer stipend plus support (new technology, a visiting consultant, internal support, conference travel, or books).  I will be available directly to support these projects as needed. I highly recommend including this online course on course design as part of the process (and budget) http://www.deefinkandassociates.com/index.php/onlinecourse/.

 To encourage innovation and risk, student course evaluations from the first two semesters of the new course will NOT be included in merit or tenure decisions. They will be available only to the involved faculty.  Part of the project, however, should be to create a more robust measure of success. How will we know if the new design is working? Faculty will have wide latitude here, but examples might include higher retention in the program, better performance in a subsequent class, better performance in year-end juries, higher scores on a rubric, or something entirely different, but there must be some form of assessment.

WHEN?

HOW?  Read Dee Fink’s (2004) short (and free) self-directed guide for designing courses for significant learning. 

Proposals should be brief and identify

(1) the course or sequence, the number of students and the need (What is the problem? How could students be better served?)

(2) which faculty will be involved

(3) the course learning objectives

(4) what a redesign might look like (very generally, what is the idea?)

(5) a budget and what support will be needed

(6) a schedule for when this will happen

(7) what assessment measure might be used to gage success (this is not binding!) and

(8) chair approval (this can come as a separate evaluation of all departmental projects)

 

RULES

A. You may propose a redesign of any regularly offered courses, but there will be some priority given to entry-level, high enrollment, or frequently offered courses. These grants are not intended only to support technology or technology-driven courses, although new uses of technology are also encouraged.

B. Involved faculty must agree to continue offering the course at least three more times. New pedagogies will take practice. You can tinker with the delivery, but unless it is a disaster, we will encourage sticking with it until we know if it is the design or the delivery.

C. The department must view this as a course of continuing importance in the curriculum and agree that all faculty who teach this course over the next three years will maintain a consistent use of these learning outcomes and this course design.  (Again, if something is not working, the redesign can continue to be improved, but there needs to be a consistency of intent.)

Our understanding of intelligence, learning, the brain has exploded in the last 30 years. We’ve discovered multiple types of intelligence, neural plasticity and realized that you can teach an old dog new tricks. One of the most important discoveries is that Dewey was right: metacognition or “thinking about your thinking” can improve learning and students with math anxiety who write about it before the exam, perform better than those who just take the exam  (Ramirez & Beilock, 2011). Two different studies, one led by Marsha C. Lovett, (2013) and the other by Mary-Ann Winkelmes (2013), demonstrate how metacognition and reflection can be used to improve study habits, exam performance, and  ultimately, new, easy and fast techniques to creating more critical thinkers.

From Socrates “self-examination” to William James’ “introspective observation” and Jean Piaget’s “directed thought” self-regulation is the foundation of critical thinking (Silver, 2013). In How We Think (1910), John Dewey describes it as “Active, persistent and careful consideration of any belief or supposed form of knowledge in light of the grounds that support it, and the further considerations to which it tends.” (p. 6) For Dewey, our job is to find problems and “forked-road situations.” The critical thinker will be able “to maintain the state of doubt and to carry on systematic and protracted inquiry.” (p. 13). This “tolerance for ambiguity” is highly desired by employers and the ability to hold two opposing ideas at once without making up your mind would make an excellent graduation requirement.

Self-regulation, however, begins with self-awareness, noticing and active-monitoring. Mary-Ann Winkelmes (2013) and The Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching have demonstrated that
(1) discussing the rational of assignments,
(2) connecting “how people learn” data with activities and
(3) debriefing grades, tests and assignments in class,
significantly improve student learning, increase retention and are especially beneficial to under-represented groups, transfer students and non-traditional students. YES! Read that again!! Simply being more transparent in class (F2F!) about why we assign what we do and connecting it to stated learning goals is especially beneficial to students with less family experience of college.  (Their website, http://www.teachingandlearning.illinois.edu/transparency.html provides much more detail about exactly which techniques were most important in which disciplines and inwhich types of classes.)

At the same time, Marsha C. Lovett, (2013), and her colleagues at Carnegie Mellon have demonstrated that exam wrappers, provide a quick and easy way to improve student learning, connect learning and thinking habits across disciplines. Exam wrappers are a very short survey (online or a single sheet of paper) given to students with assignment or exam feedback. You can find their excellent examples of their math and science wrappers at www.learningwrappers.org

I like to call these “cognitive wrappers” since the research point I like to remember is that we help students become critical thinkers most, by helping them learn to self-regulate. Ultimately, only the students themselves can decide to adopt a more complex mental model, but we have to provide the situations that generate “optimal conflict” (again Piaget, but also James Mark Baldwin, Heinz Werner and Lawrence Kohlberg) in what Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey (2009) summarize as:

  • “The persistent experience of some frustration, dilemma, life puzzle, quandary, or personal problem that is…
  • Perfectly designed to cause us to feel the limits of our current way of knowing…
  • In some sphere of our living that we care about, with…
  • Sufficient supports so that we are neither overwhelmed by the conflict nor able to escape or diffuse it.” (p. 54)

I find it significant that the neurologists, developmental psychologists, the organizational business gurus, residential life professionals, therapists and educational theorists have all come to the same conclusion. Kegan and Lahey are writing about organizational change, but their formulation seems remarkably like Dee Fink’s version of how we craft significant learning experiences or William Perry writing about Harvard students in 1970.  It is not enough just to care, or just to have high standards, or even just to provide provocative situations for students. Pedagogy and learning design are essential if we want to move students to more advanced models of thought.

Note that metacognition is a complex set of skills including self-awareness (knowing your strengths and weaknesses), understanding learning goals, planning an approach to learning, monitoring, evaluating performance, reflecting and adjusting. Metacognition (like critical thinking) is often discipline specific and is best learned with subject content: generic study skills courses have not proven effective. Repeated exposure to transparently announced and labeled critical thinking in different contexts, however, greatly helps students to create more transferrable thinking skills.

So cognitive wrappers provide an easy way to get your students thinking about how they learn and how they might self-regulate more. I think we might extend this idea in two ways. First, I work in an art school, and preparation for lessons, rehearsals, performances and classes, is just as important and requires just as much self-regulation as preparation for exams. Why not use wrappers for some of these very different activities? Second, while not an explicit part of the Carnegie Mellow exam wrappers, some of their examples provide a rationale for the assignment, and are given to students at the beginning. Here is a model for a four-part wrapper:

Rationale: This is only to help you improve.
Reflection: How did you prepare for this exam?
Comparison: What kinds of mistakes did you make?
Adjustment: How will you prepare differently next time?

Wrappers work best when they are discipline specific, but used simultaneously in different contexts in different classes. How is studying for an art history exam different than practicing for a lesson or doing calculus homework? Students need both to understand that (a) self-regulation is a part of improving each of these activities and (b) the adjustments will be different for each type of learning.

Writing, for example, is activity that really consists of multiple types of work and preparation. So the wrapper for a paper might ask:     What % of your preparation time was spent on each of these activities?

  1. Reading ___
  2. Reading and taking notes ___
  3. Re-reading ___
  4. Finding online content ___
  5. Thinking ___
  6. Brainstorming or Conceptualizing ___
  7. Sharing Ideas with others ___
  8. Preparing ___
  9. Researching ___
  10. Drafting ___
  11. Editing ___

 

While the wrapper for a problem set or science might ask: What % of your preparation time was spent on each of these activities?

  1. Reading textbook section(s) for the first time ___
  2. Re-reading textbook section(s) ___
  3. Reading/studying other materials ___
  4. Re-reading and taking notes ___
  5. Finding online content ___
  6. Solving problems for practice ___
  7. Reviewing homework solutions ___
  8. Reviewing your own notes ___
  9. Reviewing concepts and ideas ___
  10. Memorizing formulas ___

 

The wrapper for a performance class might include: What % of your preparation time was spent on each of these activities?

  1. Listening to performances ___
  2. Finding new repertoire ___
  3. Brainstorming or Conceptualizing ___
  4. Experimenting ___
  5. Sharing Ideas with others ___
  6. Practicing technique ___
  7. Working on new material ___
  8. Analyzing posture ___
  9. Working on problems ___
  10. Playing through pieces ___
  11. Resting ___
  12. Memorizing ___
  13. Playing for fun ___

Wrappers should be brief, easy, flexible and specific to both the discipline and the specific task at hand. The idea is to help students understand that they need to understand their strengths and weakness, assess their own performance, identify strategies that work for them and make adjustment. This self-regulation is important for its own sake, as a performance enhancer, but also as a key element of critical thinking. Yoga for the mind.

There is a single general template with lots of types of questions for you to personalize at http://teachingnaked.com/handouts/

  • Dewey, J. (1910), How We Think, Boston: Heath.
  • Lovett, M. C. (2013), “Make exams worth more than grades: Using exam wrappers to promote metacognition” in Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning, Kaplan, M, Silver, N, Lavaque-Manty, D., Meizlish, D., ed. San Francisco: Sterling, VA: Stylus. www.learningwrappers.org
  • Kegan, R., Lahey, L. L. (2009) Immunity to Change: How to Overcome it and unlock the potential in yourself and your organization 9Harvard Business Review Press)
  • Ramirez, G. & Beilock, L. (2011). “Writing about testing worries boosts exam performances in the classroom. Science, 331 (6014), 211-213.
  • Silver, N. (2013) “Reflective pedagogies and the metacognitive turn in college teaching. In Using reflection and metacognition to improve student learning, Kaplan, M, Silver, N, Lavaque-Manty, D., Meizlish, D., ed. San Francisco: Sterling, VA: Stylus.
  • Winkelmes, M (2013), “Transparency in teaching: Faculty share data and improve students’ learningLiberal Education 99/2 (Spring 2013), 48-55. See also Illinois Initiative on Transparency in Learning and Teaching, for http://go.illinois.edu/transparentmethods