Private liberal arts colleges: Doing nothing is a backward step

By Geoff Irvine
September 15th, 2015

Why proving effectiveness can seem like the Higgs boson of liberal arts; and why it’s not impossible to prove.

campus-liberal-artsAs college students head back to school and others begin the search, some parents in the process of reaching for the checkbook or crunching numbers might be moved to ask, “How will my son or daughter get a boost by going to this school?” Private Liberal Arts universities have two fundamental, related disadvantages in responding:

  1. Their tuition and other annual costs are a breathtaking amount of money.
  2. Proving effectiveness has become difficult and out-of-the-norm for institutional cultures.The bar for accountability and proof of efficacy is being set much, much higher.

Private Liberal Arts institutions historically do not have a culture that supports a systematic and aligned approach to the direct assessment of learning. Asking them to produce data that irrefutably shows that students are learning (getting more skillful) year to year (and that the institution’s inputs are responsible for this), is the equivalent of the Higgs boson particle in Physics.

Rankings Don’t Reward Innovation

There are thousands of private colleges and universities in the U.S. vying for the attention and retention of students with good SAT scores and GPAs. Unfortunately, they are mired in a ranking culture that does not necessarily reward innovation, let alone disruptive initiatives.

For example, it’s important to your ranking as an institution that you not appear too easy to get into (acceptance rate). It’s also vital that you preserve the impression among guidance counselors that your school is outstanding, based largely on anecdotal information from alumni. Risky adventures in curriculum delivery and assessment may not play well, especially if they fail or the results are not quickly conclusive.

If the system does not seem to be broken, why fix it? Some university presidents have even become adept at manipulating the factors that drive such rating systems and manufacture notable rises in their rankings without really touching what happens in a classroom.

Take the Self-Study High Road

Let me go on record—I think that private Liberal Arts schools are one of the planet’s best inventions, ever. They are best positioned to have the greatest impact on learners bar none, cost aside. So, what to do? While it may be counter-intuitive, these institutions have to take the high road before it is taken from them. They are tuition-driven and their fiscals will not permit drops in enrollment. Turn the tools of good research—something these schools know how to do very well—on a new subject: self-study and data-driven improvement of learning involving all stakeholders.

First, choose a digital system for systematically collecting and analyzing the assessment of signature assessments across the life of a student. Any good assessment system provider should be able to help an institution with sound system design and disappear into a Learning Management System (LMS) so that the collection of assessment data, as well as its analyzation, becomes organic and less obtrusive.

Once you have the system, make assessment a tenure-track activity. Publishing about teaching and learning within a discipline should be given the same heft as production for discipline-based journals. This may mean getting accreditors to lighten up on their time-honored formulas for matching faculty credentials and teaching assignments with preferred journals for fields of expertise. In this endeavor, everyone is an educator.

The goal is to rigorously study what is happening and what experimental variables can show repeated gains. People in Teacher Education have been doing this for years, their focus sometimes scoffed at by their Liberal Arts and Sciences colleagues as being esoteric and too far off the mark for the culture of academia. However, teaching is not a soft science—it uses the same methods that any good biologist does. The difference is that educators tend not to throw out the outliers in results, acknowledging how hard it is to control for experimental conditions. Outliers are treated as “interesting.” Once there are results, publish and do so aggressively. Make this work the showcase for conference presentations and accreditation narratives.

Include Students

It’s also critical to focus on feedback to students. In satisfaction surveys, students often state that feedback from their instructors is something they value very highly, but is one thing they feel they get too little of. Why do students think they aren’t getting enough feedback?

This suggests a fresh avenue for research. Is it that the learning culture has trained them to attend just to their grade rather than performance progress over time? Is it that there are too few opportunities to redo work based on feedback (thereby lowering its value)? Is it that the feedback, while valid, is not aligned with the assessment criterion, leaving the student confused?

The 7 Overarching Tenets

In addition to the above recommendations, institutions need to push themselves to achieve the following seven overarching tenets (as if what’s already presented was not challenging enough):

  1. Have the courage to risk, as well as dogged persistence on the part of academic leadership.
  2. Accept that the world of “just good enough” is not enough if private Liberal Arts institutions are to survive into the next century.
  3. Heed the observation of Albert Einstein that insanity is doing “the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
  4. Trust that faculty, above all (and I know this to be so) want students to succeed and their school prosper.
  5. Activate faculty innovators with the resources they need to bring good data about teaching and learning to their colleagues, and seed a proactive culture of assessment.
  6. Find a way to make time to efficiently share findings about learning trends and effective teaching and learning with faculty and leadership.
  7. Make assessment an ethic and about “for learning” rather than just “of learning.”

There is no “standing still” for these institutions that deserve the highest respect. Ask any high performance athlete and they will tell you that if you stop training, cease striving to get better—even incrementally—the outcome is always sliding backwards.

Backwards motion is not an option in this instance.

Geoff Irvine is CEO of Chalk & Wire, a learning assessments company.

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