One course just won’t do it

From time to time, Augustana lets me out of my little cave so that I can attend a conference related to higher education research or assessment of student learning outcomes.   A few weeks ago, a paper was presented at the Association for the Study of Higher Education (ASHE) that I found fascinating and particularly germane to many of the conversations we have at Augustana about the effects of particular curricular emphases on broader student learning outcomes.

This particular paper examined the influence of required diversity courses on students’ inclination toward civic engagement.  At many institutions the general education curricula is organized around a series of categories from which students choose one or two courses to meet the institution’s requirements.  This paper hypothesized that perhaps one course on diversity issues was not enough to influence substantive, lasting learning.  The authors examined data from about 500 students, gathered at the beginning of the first year and at the end of the fourth year.  The authors also had access to student transcripts that allowed them to identify which courses the students took to fulfill their general education requirements.

Students in this study had two options in fulfilling the diversity requirement.  They could take a domestic diversity course or a global diversity course.  In some cases, students took both – especially since some courses within the diversity category also fulfilled other requirements necessary for graduation.  Thus, the researchers could test the effect of taking one domestic diversity course, one global diversity course, or both courses on students’ gains in attitudes toward civic engagement.

The study found that the only students who made substantive gains in an inclination toward civic engagement were those who took both the domestic and global diversity courses.  Conversely, students who took only one course focused on either domestic or global diversity had not unique effect on attitudinal gains.

The take away from this paper, and the discussion that followed really honed in on the tendency for us to think that substantive learning can be accomplished by a single course – a “check the box” approach.   Of course, as we think about designing a new curriculum these findings might be useful to consider.  More broadly, however, I would suggest that this paper reinforces the idea that substantive learning is a function of a series of related experiences rather than any one experience.   We are the ones who can help our students engage in related experiences and help to point out those connections.

Make it a good day.


Evidently, the stuff we did worked!

So what’s this about the National Survey of Student Engagement coming to Augustana to study us?  Essentially – as Ellen described in her cover article, although many institutions have been using NSSE for over a decade to assess student experiences, far fewer have 1) used the findings from their data to construct broad changes in educational programming, and 2) documented improvement in educational quality on subsequent NSSE surveys as a result of those changes.  I thought it might be helpful to explore the areas where we have seen substantive change in NSSE scores and note the program and policy changes that we think contributed to this change.

First, some background.  NSSE is a four page survey that asks a series of demographic and college experience questions.  The experience questions are organized under five broad concepts that NSSE calls “benchmarks,” each representing something that we know makes a difference in the quality of a students’ education.  They are:

Level of Academic Challenge

Active and Collaborative Learning

Student-Faculty Interaction

Enriching Educational Experiences

Supportive Campus Environment

Augustana began using NSSE in 2002 and continued to utilize it in 2003, 2006, and 2009.  In addition, NSSE is included in the Wabash National Study, so our freshmen class of 2008 also completed NSSE.  We will administer NSSE again in the spring of 2012.

Since NSSE revised the way they calculated the benchmark scores in 2005, we can’t compare the benchmark scores since 2003, but we can see some impressive changes between 2006 and 2009.  Comparing freshman scores, we made statistically significant increases in Student-Faculty Interaction and Supportive Campus Environment benchmarks.  Comparing senior scores, we made a statistically significant increase in Enriching Educational Experiences.

There are also changes on individual items that suggest some improvement in educational quality.  Changes in NSSE scores between 2003 and 2009 suggest that on average, we have increased the extent to which our freshmen make class presentations, prepare two or more drafts of a paper before turning it in, and work with classmates outside of class to prepare assignments.  In addition, our 2009 freshmen believe that Augustana is making are larger contribution to their growth in speaking clearly and effectively, working effectively with others, understanding people of other racial and ethnic backgrounds, and contributing to the welfare of the community.

A close examination of our NSSE data indicates that, although we still can do more to improve the educational quality of an Augustana experience, 1) we do a lot of things well, and 2) we have made numerous substantive improvements during the past decade.

If you’d like to know more about any aspect of our NSSE data, please don’t hesitate to ask.

Make it a good day.


Plugging in to the process of learning

To those of you who were able to take some time away last week – welcome back!  And to those of you who never left – thanks for sticking around!

Although we are well into the conversation about improving student learning through curricular reform, the other half of the educational effectiveness equation remains a bit of a conundrum.  This “other half” to which I refer is our students’ motivation to plug in to the process of learning and growing.  We all know some students who don’t seem to care much at all about their education.  In addition, we all know of students who are tremendously motivated to get good grades but seem to care very little about learning.  So what do we know about our students’ motivation to learn and succeed in college?

Augustana has not traditionally collected much data that fully addresses student motivation.  Sometimes we have presumed that increased student satisfaction will lead to increased motivation.  Yet we know that motivation is more complicated – that there are different types of motivation that can produce vastly different results.  As a liberal arts college, we actually want our students to develop an intrinsic motivation to learn and be less concerned about extrinsically measured achievement.

Although the Wabash National Study didn’t really flesh out the idea of motivation, it did include two items that we can use to dig into the way that student motivation might change in college.  Both items are presented as agree/disagree statements with a response scale of 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree).  The first item states, “Getting the best grades I can is very important to me.”  The second item states, “I am willing to work hard in a course to learn the material even if it won’t lead to a higher grade.”

Our current seniors participated in the Wabash National Study as freshmen in 2008 and 2009.  So the data we have comes from the beginning and the end of their first year at Augustana.  Here are their average responses to both questions.


Fall of 2008

Spring of 2009

Importance of Grades



Willingness to Work Hard Regardless of Grades *




There are two observations I would like you to consider.  First, in both the fall and spring our students appear to rate getting the best grades they can as more important than working hard to learn regardless of that effort’s effect on grades.  Second, between fall and spring the change in the importance of getting the best possible grades is not large enough to be significant, suggesting that this value does not change on average.  However, the change in willingness to work hard regardless of grades between fall and spring is significant – suggesting that intrinsic motivation to learn may have actually dropped during the first year.

I am going to revisit this topic in a couple of weeks because it cuts to the core of our efforts to effectively prepare students to succeed in their personal and professional lives.  Moreover, it appears that there are certain types of educational experiences that may increase intrinsic motivation.   How is that for a teaser?!

Make it a good day,