Progress Report: SNU Arts and Culture Learning Community

We completed the first semester of the first iteration of the SNU Arts and Culture Learning Community project.  In this project we took in 40 students most of whom had a strong interest in the arts.  We created a faculty team with expertise in composition, oral communication, computer applications, fine arts and literature and created a curriculum for the students that fulfilled General Education requirements in composition, speech, computing, and either fine arts or literature.  The faculty taught as a team in a pair of strongly integrated courses Rhetoric I and Aesthetics.  These two courses will be followed in the spring by Rhetoric II and Christian Faith and Life.  Students and faculty attended co-curricular enrichment experiences related to the arts together.  In the Spring they will work with students at a local economically challenged elementary school, Millwood Elementary, helping students paint a mural at their school.

The faculty did a great job constructing the curriculum focused intently on student success.  We chose to measure student academic success against respective university-wide general education learning outcomes, retention and student connectedness.  At the end of the first semester we retained 80% of students to the Learning Community and 90% to the university.  Students reported developing close friendships that transcended the class experience.  Faculty reported that end of semester work in the Aesthetics course, though students were still at the mid-point of progress toward the first major outcome communication measurement, was “as good as any end of semester paper in Intro to Lit (a sophomore level course)”.

The overall project was a pilot designed to demonstrate the effectiveness of integrating curricular and co-curricular activities.  Early successes reported by faculty led to inclusion of an item in the university strategic plan indicating a desire to support the expansion of the project beyond a pilot.

Additionally, I observed the following:

The faculty involved in the ACLC have developed into a passionate team.  They’ve embraced their role as guides leading new students into our larger Christ-centered community of scholars.  For the participating students, growing together into this community during their freshman year led by passionate full-time faculty who work together as an integrated team for the good of the community and supporting one another in that endeavor is as good as it gets anywhere.  This is the kind of thing we can do better than anyone else, if we just will.  This is the kind of thing that emerges from our core values and the identity that we share inside our community and with our constituents.  It’s very different from the typical freshman experience in many places where the odds favor of having 3 or more of 5 courses in the first semester taught by contingent faculty or TAs.  That happens too often, even here, due to chronic understaffing in areas that guide students in learning composition, speech, computing, general mathematical, social science, history and the general education religion/philosophy area. Again, we are not unique in struggling to meet those kinds of challenges.  Yet, students in our LC project groups (thematic and Honors) are getting the best we have to offer; we are meeting their expectations; they are learning and staying. We also feel that we are providing the kind of educational experience that our students’ parents expect us to provide their children.  That’s what they believe they are paying for.  Being a part of bringing together these people around these values has made life great as we work together in this great cause.

These faculty have created in me confidence that we can reproduce something similar to that with another team of existing GE faculty.

Adding additional LCs does increase administrative burden. The participating faculty meet every week together for about 2 hours outside of class to ensure that they are providing the best educational experience. That’s extra work; they’ve done it because they believe in the value of what they are doing in the LC. They don’t get paid extra for that or load released. That needs to be addressed. Their willingness to do it arises out of their passion and their commitment. That’s a cost of doing things to the level of quality that we intend to deliver. We sure are fortunate to have these folks.

That said, we need additional assets, envisioned as elements of load contributed by faculty already in the institution, to recruit new students into the next year’s program at the very time when our LC faculty are pouring themselves into transforming this year’s students, to manage evaluation and feedback of curricular and co-curricular activities to ensure that we are always making today’s best better tomorrow, and to actively recruit and incorporate additional faculty into the program, both for the additional LCs and to short circuit burnout and stagnation.   These additional assets are necessary to ensure that we can do two LCs well.  I believe that after we get our feet on the ground, those same assets can utilize their skills to support more than two LCs.  I’m thinking maybe four, but that’s still not clear.

I’m looking forward to gathering an analyzing additional data at the end of this semester comparing the academic success of LC students and that of other freshman students.

Overheard…need more real world applications!

Standing in the cafeteria line today, I couldn’t help but overhear the two students behind me discussing the test in some unidentifiable class. One said, “I wish they would ban those simulations from the test, I aced everything else, but couldn’t do the simulation part and so I got a 76.”

I turned around and said something to the effect of “But don’t the simulations demonstrate that you can actually apply what you’ve learned?”

He said, “Yeah, but I knew all the vocabulary, that shows that I learned the material.”

I responded with, “But isn’t that like knowing all the terminology about playing tennis. Just because you know the terms doesn’t mean you can actually play the game when you get on the court, does it?”

He and his friend gave me that, “Quit bothering us, you are an idiot” look.

I think that what I really overheard today was a student saying, “If you really want me to learn something, you’ll have to test more than just the vocabulary.  You have to test whether or not I can do something with it…and I’ll resent it if you do.”

It reminded me, I must design more application exercises, preferably real life kinds of simulationthat that utilize the knowledge I ask students to glean…if I can figure out how to. This little snippet of converation really reinforced for me the notion that educational best practices require intentional focus on active learning, critical thinking and problem solving. This is challenging for everyone at first, but useful and consistent with the real aim of 21st century education.

Course Workload: What’s Reasonable?

What is normal (not excessive, reasonable to expect) in a General Education class?

In a General Education course, properly calibrated for a group of student’s level of ability, it would be normal for faculty to expect students to utilize and demonstrate critical thinking and effective communication skills in order to meet the minimum acceptable standard for completing an assignment or a course.

It would be normal, in a properly calibrated course, for students to engage in the work of learning along the following lines:

  • Students should understand that it is normal to be working together in class, on topic, for the number of hours equal to the number of credit hours assigned to the course.  In addition, students should expect to do about 2-3 hours of work outside of class for every hour students are in class together. Taking those together, it would be normal, in a three (3) credit course, for a student to spend 9 hours a week engaged in doing the work necessary to achieve the learning outcomes of the course.
  • For a course with a lab, it would be normal to spend 2-3 additional hours engaged in solving the weekly lab problem.
  • When students are in engaged in courses where the delivery system is not organized by the standard semester, it would be normal to expect the work load for the course to require that the student engage in learning activities for 40-50 hours over the instructional term for each credit hour assigned to the course (class + preparation and demonstration time). (For a 3 credit class, it would be normal for students to spend 120-150 hours engaged in class related work over the term).

While there are a wide range of learning activities and a range of tempos by which students complete those activities,

  • It would be normal to expect students to read critically 10-15 pages (2500-4000 words) in an hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to compose 300-700 words of reflective writing to standard in an hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to research and compose to standard a research paper (essay with sources) at a rate of 100 words per hour.
  • It would be normal to expect students to utilize 1-2 sources per page in a research paper. For those who like algebra, the equation might look like this: Number of Pages(Number of Sources X 2)= Normal.
  • It would be normal for students to spend 50-75% of the time together in class engaged  in active learning exercises that require them to collect and aggregate information (normally acquired outside of class) from one another and analyze it, either individually or collectively, in order to create knowledge for themselves.

Creating a common understanding among both faculty and students about what a reasonable workload is for a class has several advantages.

  • Faculty can evaluate the assignments they give and time frame in which they expect them to be done against some of the normal times it might take to complete the assignment.
  • If faculty are willing to commit to a shared set of criteria like these, will live by them when making assignments, and will communicate these expectations to students as the discuss assignments, it may have the effect of upgrading the overall educational culture of an institution. Some expect too little from their students and others too much. Evening that out might be beneficial for everyone.
  • Increasing workload from low levels to reasonable ones may increase student engagement in learning, but increasing workload beyond reasonable leads to diminishing returns in regard to student engagement and thus learning. If students trust faculty to make reasonable assignments, then perhaps students will be willing to engage the assignment.  This may be particularly true for reading in preparation for class.  I know that I have been guilty of making large reading assignments and then being frustrated that students didn’t read them.  After talking with students, I’ve come to discover that if they see 100 page a week reading assignments plus weekly writing assignments, they won’t read.  The load is too daunting.  By the standards above, I would be expecting 10 hours of reading and a couple of hours of writing a week in addition to class time.  That’s probably enough over the top to decrease student engagement in the course…exactly the opposite of what I want to do.

All of this is the fruit of putting together things I’ve heard over the course of my teaching career and then thinking though nuts and bolts and implications.  I think it would be great for folks to collect some real data in order to firm up the data on how much one can read and write in an hour in order to make the “reasonable” expectations even more reasonable by conforming them to findings drawn from a larger data set.

So What’s a College Student Supposed to Do in College, Anyway?

Ask a group of 18 year olds that question and one might get answers such as “get a degree so that I can be a xxxx,” “have fun and meet new friends,” “find a mate,” and the more self aware of them might say, “grow up.”  When Arthur Chickering thought about student development, he created a set of ideas known commonly as Chickering’s Seven Vectors.  Below are Chickering’s vectors and what they might mean for a person trying to figure out what a college student should be doing in college.

Chickering asserted that while in college, students continue to develop into competent adults along seven pathways.  They learn to

  1. develop intellectual, interpersonal and physical competence
  2. manage emotions
  3. move through autonomy to interdependence
  4. develop mature interpersonal relationships
  5. establish identity
  6. developing purpose
  7. develop integrity

Further discussion of Chickering’s Seven Vectors can be found in Education and Identity (Jossey Bass Higher and Adult Education Series).

If Chickering’s observations are right, then students who reap the personal benefits of a college education  can expect to have some uncomfortable experiences and personal discoveries.  They can expect to discover that

  • They are not as smart as or as good as they thought they were (based on their high school sense of themselves).  In college, thought, they get to become even better thinkers (more analytical, better informed, wiser), savier and more mature in their relationships and able to relate to different sorts of people, and perhaps even more physically skilled as they have opportunity to participate in and learn new skills through college activities such as choirs, art classes, and  intramural sport programming (how many high schools had classes in racketball or backpacking?).
  • The new situations, the new environment, the new demands of college, in which they don’t have the same kind of family and friend network, makes for some rough emotional times.  Learning to recognize the range of emotions that situations can evoke and control them, channeling emotional energy into productive pathways, all by oneself can be really tough.  Many students coming to college have experienced a couple of different kinds of emotional environments.  Some have been told how to feel and what to do with those feelings by family and friends. College requires them to experience emotions and figure out what to do with them for themselves.  Others have been cut slack by parents and teachers regarding their emotional outbursts.  Many believe that adolescents are supposed to have nearly uncontrollable emotional drama and that it’s best to let them emote.  College students learn that emotional drama is counterproductive to successful college life, but that the college experience can provide them support and opportunities to figure out how to develop a more mature emotional outlook.
  • Some students who come to college are good at school, others aren’t.  Some students know how to be themselves, others have lived like chameleons. College provides opportunities for students to become individuals who know that they are personally competent even without lots of people telling them they are (or in spite of it). It also provides opportunities for students who are or become personally competent individuals academically to move to the next level…to learn to rely on others, building teams of academically competent people, to accomplish tasks too large for one person to accomplish.
  • In college, students from lots of different backgrounds come to live and learn in close proximity to each other.  Faculty encourage active participation and critical thinking in classes.  Some students find that their view of the world is not shared by everyone.  Developing mature interpersonal relationships requires students to figure out how to tolerate and appreciate those different from them.  Maturity in interpersonal relationships also means that students have to figure out how to develop healthy intimate relationships, with appropriate boundaries.  Girls and Guys Gone Wild, stalkers, passive-aggressives, possessors, and other “bad news” kinds of improperly bounded relationships are legendary parts of college life.  Good colleges help students develop mature interpersonal relationships that value individual worth and promote relational health.
  • Unstrung from the family social network, college students often struggle with “Who am I?” questions in profound ways.  In college they often put on different kinds of identities in order to explore the comfort of the fit.  An oft heard saying is that a college student will change his/her major at least three times in their career.  That can be scary, but it’s natural and its just the tip of the iceberg of a whole gamut of issues that students have to figure out for themselves that include “(1) comfort with body and appearance, (2) comfort with gender and sexual orientation, (3) sense of self in a social, historical, and cultural context, (4) clarification of self-concept through roles and life-style, (5) sense of self in response to feedback from valued others, (6) self-acceptance and self-esteem, and (7) personal stability and integration” (Chickering and Reisser, 1993, p. 49).
  • Who will I be? is another question that seems urgent and alarming to many college students.  This goes back to changing the major three times or more.  One of the tasks of college in terms of developing a sense of one’s purpose revolves around participation in experiential learning opportunities, service projects, and developing networks of friends while in college that will continue to be important to one’s life network in the future. Faculty who actively mentor students contribute significantly to helping students discover and resolve how they will answer the question of who they will be “when they grow up.”
  • Developing integrity is one of the most important things that students do in college.  Most come to college with a received view of world.  Their parents played a significant role in shaping that worldview.  Most leave college with one similar to what they came in with.  However, part of the college experience at a good college is to put that worldview through the fire and refine it.  College should help students learn to think openly and critically about ideas.  Being willing to change one’s mind in response to sound, evidence based reasoning, even if it means giving up something one has held dear, is the mark of a mature person and a person who will be able to make the world a better place.  A college education should provide students with opportunities to learn how to formulate good questions, gather sound information, analyze truth claims, identify assumptions and control for presuppositions, identify (develop) and apply useful conceptual tools,  see the problem from other points of view, draw conclusions based on reasoning informed by this process and identify the implications that those conclusions have for a persons beliefs and actions.  In addition to being able to think for oneself, which is fundamental to the well-being of a free society, one needs the ability make decisions within an good ethical framework…one that is less egocentric than most adolescents initially possess.  In college, students learn that doing what is right means acting in a manner that values others, builds rather than destroys relationships, values life, encourages and takes individual responsibility and participates in the development of a just society.

So what’s a college student supposed to be doing in college?  Growing up is part of it, learning to think, having healthy fun, making mistakes and learning how not to make them again, learning how to be a whole and real person, learning how to be true to oneself and one’s beliefs while valuing and respecting others are other parts.  College students have their work cut out for them, and those who design college experiences do to.

Where I’m coming from….

This is a bit of my educational narrative created to capture my motivations for transforming the general studies program

Thought 1: Each generation teaches its offspring the lessons it wishes to teach to its parents.

I wasn’t around for the redbirding and bluebirding…or if I was, it was in reading in first and second grade.  I seem to remember some groupings, I was in the middle one, and wanted to be in the top one, and I remember trying to figure out what I needed to do to get into that group…to read whatever it was they were.  I later did get there, and about that time, those groups went away.  For the most part, the small town west Texas educators of my childhood and youth were mainstreaming and pushing through the last elements of integration and trying to ensure that no one had better access to education than anyone else.

I don’t know if my teachers saw it that way, but I did.  I sat next to kids who couldn’t really read, for whom English was not the language of their home. They weren’t going to college, they were going to work.  I never thought that was because they weren’t smart enough, but rather because that was just what the economy and the environment required. There was no difference in their education and mine.  Most of them passed with a C and a smattering of Ds.  In terms of grades, I don’t remember very many children who attended Idalou ISD left behind.  I do remember the teacher spending more time managing their antics than challenging those of us who could read and were curious to learn to learn more.  Ever since, I’ve been rather curious about descriptions of rigorous, competitive academic environments and those free-form, individualized curiosity driven systems (though I imagine descriptions of both are somewhat romanticized).

I think that those teachers and administrators of my youth were fixing the problems that were rampant when they had been in school, little towns with three schools—the white school, the Mexican school and the Negro school.  They replaced that with the integrated, egalitarian school.  By the way, I think that was great.

I think it must have led to a kind of plain vanilla education that tried to educate everyone, but didn’t do it very successfully…maybe the one size fits all curriculum didn’t fit the needs of all those different kids or maybe in those real classrooms the bell curve was inverted and the curriculum was pitched at the bottom of the U, leaving the curious to learn for themselves and the disinterested lost, bored, and looking to create whatever bit of distraction they could.  That state of education I think led the fifty something set of educational policy makers, with Laura Bush their champion, to attempt to put teeth in the educational system…to ensure that every student not only got an opportunity but was compelled as much as is possible to learn, and to place the onus on the teacher to make sure that no child failed to learn. If nothing else, to make turn the U into a bell. I can respect that, as frustrating as my colleagues in secondary education find that challenge.

But, while you can lead a horse to water,….

So how did this condition my philosophy of education?

First, I believe in educational opportunity for all.  I want to make sure that there is opportunity for everyone to learn as much as they can and want.

Second, I want to be sure that the weakest students learn those things that are essential to making a life and a living in the 21st century.  Education is not a panacea, but we can’t allow anyone to be intellectually disenfranchised by the system.  On the other hand, as someone who believes that people have the right to make choices and should be given opportunities to exercise those choices,  I don’t figure we can make anyone learn if they don’t want to.

Third, I want to make sure that the really curious students have an opportunity to explore the world as fully as they can.  They need teachers that will serve as their guides and lead them or point them toward whatever, wherever it is that will slake their current thirst for knowledge.  I don’t want to turn my back on them, just because there doesn’t seem to be that many students who fit that profile (and I think there might be more than is apparent, because these folks are often pretty good at conforming to the system to get as much as it has to offer them and then quietly finding ways to get more elsewhere).

In short, I sure don’t want a U curve, and I really don’t want a bell curve, instead I believe that we live in a world in which we should strive to create, reinforce, and reward a J curve in terms of student learning and performance.

So that’s what I want to say to my parents, what will my kids want to say to me?

That’s it for Thought 1.

General Education

What is the minimum that colleges and universities should expect of their graduates? That question is what educators have been asking for decades if not centuries. Good faculty ask it of themselves every time they teach a class and wonder about it as they sit in graduation ceremonies.

Here’s my list of minimum expectations:

1) Critical Thinking: upon completing a university degree, college graduates are able to critically evaluate the assumptions, presuppositions, and arguments (both subtle and direct) embedded in expressions of thought and culture by individuals and societies.

2) Problem Solving: College graduates can solve problems creatively by drawing upon appropriate principles, methods, and examples from a variety of disciplines, predict possible consequences (positive and negative) of a range of potential actions, evaluate (if appropriate) possible solutions in an ethical framework, decide upon the best solution, and successfully plan and execute the chosen solution. Of course, one would hope they come in with those skills, but since many don’t, college educators must remediate when necessary and help our students extend their abilities in this area.

3) Effective Communication: College graduates can construct rational arguments based on solid evidence acquired from appropriate sources and through the use of the best available methods and can communicate those arguments clearly and concisely using sound rhetorical strategies in both speech and writing. Of course, students come to college with elements of these skills in place. As with any skill, practice makes better. Students must practice and refine these skills so that good communication skills comes second nature. They can stand up and speak well at the drop of a hat if necessary or sit down and compose a text, using proper grammar and spelling, that argues of point or narrates an event.

4) Aesthetic Analysis: College graduates have the ability to critically evaluate artistic expressions, including the fine arts, music, drama, literature, media, and human movement (i.e., dance, sports), through the use of political, sociological, anthropological and aesthetic theories.

5) Science and Technology: College graduates can critically evaluate developments in science, technology, and health on the basis of elementary principles, good scientific practices, and the proper interpretation of mathematical models and statistics.

6) Global Perspectives: College graduates are able to interpret and contextualize current events in light of historical, geographical, sociological, economic, and political contexts.

7) Information Literacy: College graduates are able to consult various sources of information and critically evaluate the information and its source for veracity, authenticity and usefulness. They are aware of the wide variety of sources available for gathering information including library reference areas, paper and electronic finding aids, government issued documents, paper and online periodicals, as well as material revealed by internet search engines and are aware of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

Of course college students learn many other things, but if they learned to do these across the board, I think we would all be pretty happy. Margaret Spellings would not be wondering if colleges were doing their job well enough for the federal government to fund them through student loans. Parents and students would know that their money was well spent. Employers would see increased productivity. That may be a little pie in sky, but I’m convinced this is doable. These expectations are reasonable and faculty and students should expect to accomplish them in the course of the college curriculum.