Teaching, learning, and sleep

It’s that time of the term again – lots to do and not nearly enough time to do it.  Especially for students, at this time of the term the amount of time needed to meet academic and co-curricular obligations thunders past critical mass like a semi-truck blowing by a hitchhiker. Pretty soon basic health and hygiene behaviors get pushed to the side and our kids are riding a rollercoaster of super-sized energy drinks, junk food, and far too little sleep.


One of the outcomes that the Wabash National Study allows us to track is health behaviors.  This set of variables includes measures of exercising, binge drinking, smoking, and sleep deprivation.  Since the end of the term is often a time when students look like they are groggily stumbling toward the finish line, I thought we’d examine students’ reports of sleep deprivation over the first year and see if anything faculty and staff do might impact it one way or the other.


Sleep issues are deceptively complicated because there are lots of reasons why someone might not get enough sleep.  It might be too much homework all at once.  Or it might be stress about something completely unrelated to school.  Since we don’t have the breadth of variables in the Wabash data to get at all of the potentially influential stress related issues, I tried to focus this analysis on the factors that might shape students’ allocation of time and thus influence the frequency of feeling sleep-deprived.


First of all, we found that average amount of times during a week that students’ felt sleep deprived increased from the beginning to the end of the first year – an increase that proved to be statistically significant.  Now by itself, that isn’t much of a surprise – and many of you might say that this is as it should be.  So the next question is:  What are the factors that are uniquely influencing this change?


(I’m glad to send you the full list of variables we examined and the output file if anyone is interested – Regression Modeling Geeks Unite!)


After accounting for basic demographic characteristics and pre-college behaviors, we found that both the number of hours students reported studying per week and the number of hours students spent in co-curricular activities positively influenced an increase in sleep deprivation.  However, after adding greek membership into the mix, the impact of co-curricular involvement evaporated and was replaced by a similar sized impact of greek affiliation.


While that finding is interesting in its own right, I wanted to know more.  Is there anything about the way that we interact with students that might also impact this increase in sleep deprivation?  Interestingly, we found evidence that faculty teaching behaviors might mitigate this apparent increase.  As our students’ reports of experiencing instructional organization and clarity increased, the increase in sleep deprivation during the freshman year was REDUCED.  In other words, the degree to which students report faculty are clear and organized in teaching their courses appears to influence healthier sleeping behaviors in our students.  Moreover, I tested this analysis with the full Wabash data set (about 3000 students from 19 schools) and again, the impact of instructional clarity and organization was significant in reducing the increase in sleep deprivation over the first year.


I’m not sure I’m ready to suggest a direct causal relationship – but I think it’s worth considering the legitimate possibility that the way we teach and organize our courses might indeed play an important role in fostering a positive learning environment beyond the academic sphere.


zzzzzzzzz . . . (make it a good day . . . shhhh),



The educational benefits of reflection

If there was a magic potion that turned glum, unkempt, “I dare you to learn me some teachin,” students into captivated, self-directed, and perpetually inquisitive knowledge hounds, we’d all want to know about it, right?  Of course, student development does quite work that way.  And yet, there are specific pedagogical exercises that seem to be pretty influential in our first year students’ growth – for those students lucky enough to encounter in it.


One such exercise is reflective learning.  Although we often think of reflection as something that might be found in a journal assignment (or a mirror), it can happen in lots of settings and formats.  And while some criticize reflection as little more than rationalized navel gazing, there is plenty of evidence to suggest that reflection – when facilitated well – can be a powerful learning tool.  So I decided to see if reflective learning had any impact on the educational development of our first-year students who participated in the Wabash National Study in 2008.  After all, since many of the “high-impact experiences” we often talk about (e.g., study abroad, internships) are rarely accessible to freshmen, we need to know the kinds of learning experiences that can make the first year of college more than “just a year of waiting to get to the good stuff.”


The Wabash National Study accounted for reflective learning by combining three questions.  They asked, “During the current school year,


  • how often did you examine the strengths and weaknesses of your own views on a topic or issue?”
  • how often did you try to better understand someone else’s views by imagining how an issue looks from his or her perspective?”
  • how often did you learn something that changed the way you understand an issue or concept?”


Available responses included 1=never, 2=sometimes, 3=often, and 4=very often.


It turns out that the frequency of reflective learning reported by students at the end of their first year significantly influenced increases in Attitudes toward Literacy, Intellectual Curiosity, Intercultural Competence, Psychological Well Being, Socially Responsible Leadership, and Civic Engagement.  These increases continued to be true even after accounting for differences in incoming ACT score, sex, gender, socio-economic status, instructional clarity and organization, integrative learning, and higher order thinking.


This finding is even more interesting because the average scores on each of these outcomes didn’t change during the first year.  In other words, while there were enough students who either regressed, increased, or stayed the same on each of these outcomes to keep the overall averages static, the students who made gains on these outcomes seem to have (at least) one thing in common – increased reflective learning experiences.

Coincidentally (ok, not really), on Wednesday of this week (1/25) at 4 PM, Kristin Douglas, Rebecca Cook, and Stephanie Fuhr will host a presentation in the Treadway Library about the ways that Biology has successfully infused reflection into the major.  They’ll talk about the challenges and successes they have seen and hopefully give you some ideas of ways that reflective learning might work in your course or major.  In addition, Ryan White, Director of the Center for Vocational Reflection, is offering a one-time stipend to help faculty integrate reflection into their courses.  If I weren’t on an airplane on Wednesday, I’d be there.


I hope you’ll attend and consider finding ways to infuse this “magic potion” into your teaching.  Maybe it’s not really an instant elixir – think of it a time-release capsule.



Make it a good day,



Graduating our lower income students

We knew it was coming – despite hoping against hope that we might have avoided winter this year. But even as some of us were shoveling out and bundling up, the warm couple of days last week had already turned my thoughts to spring and all that comes with the end of the academic year.  Of course, this inevitably brings up the topic of graduation – a primary measure of our success as an institution.


For many years, colleges have tracked graduation rates – the proportion of students from a given incoming cohort that actually graduate from that college.  Although the national conversation about graduation rates generally references 6-year rates, for most private liberal arts colleges the 4-year graduation rate matters most because 1) the curriculum is explicitly set up to graduate students in four years, and 2) the cost of tuition at private colleges makes finishing in four years particularly preferable to students and their families.  In more recent years, many institutions have figured out that the overall graduation rate isn’t really as important as the graduation rates of student subgroups that are more likely to struggle and/or withdraw from college.


As the cost of higher education has increased, many have worried about the effect of this trend on college access for students from lower socio-economic status backgrounds.  But another question is also important – for the students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who acquire access to higher education, do they graduate at the same rate as students from higher socio-economic backgrounds?


Although the answer is probably a complicated one, we are able to examine graduation rates across federal financial aid categories and find out if there are systematic differences for students entering Augustana College.  Although socio-economic status (SES) is a complex issue, federal financial aid can roughly approximate three categories of students.  The most privileged students would be those who don’t qualify for any federal financial aid.  The students with some need qualify for a subsidized Stafford Loan, but no grant aid.  And the students for whom paying for college is the biggest challenge qualify for a Pell Grant.  Based on these categories, we can test the graduation rates for each group.


The most recent cohort of students to finish four years at Augustana entered in the fall of 2007.  The 4-year graduation rate for these students across these three SES groups is portrayed below.


Students with neither Stafford or Pell


Students receiving a Stafford Loan


Students receiving a Pell Grant



Clearly, something is going on for the students who received a Pell Grant that differs from those who did not.  But what?  Maybe they initially thought they could cobble together the money to come to Augustana, but then found out they just couldn’t make it work.  Maybe they decided they weren’t getting enough out of the Augustana experience to merit the costs – especially in the context of their financial situation and economic collapse in 2008.  Or maybe the issue wasn’t so much about money as it was about a sense of belonging on campus among the much larger proportion of students who don’t come from such economically disadvantaged backgrounds.  Or maybe it was a combination of factors.


I don’t begin to know the answers to these questions.  But I think this data suggests that we had better find out.


Make it a good day,



What does Finland have to teach us about assessment?

Welcome back!  During the break I hope you were able to enjoy some time with loved ones and (or) recharge your intellectual batteries.  I will admit that I spent part of the break embracing my inner geek, reading about the amazing improvements in Finland’s student achievement scores since they instituted a new national education policy in the 1970s.  Previously, Finland had been decidedly average.  Today, their scores are consistently among the best in the world – particularly in reading and science.  As a result, the U.S. and the U.K. – countries with substantially lower scores – are very interested in finding out what might be driving this educational success story.


The point of my column this week isn’t to delve into the details of Finland’s success, but rather to consider one aspect of Finland’s approach that I think is particularly applicable to our current conversation about educational outcomes and improved student learning.  So here are a few links if you are interested in reading more about Finland educational success or about the exam that is used to measure student achievement.  Instead.


“Accountability is something that is left when responsibility has been subtracted.”


If you’ve already read the Atlantic Monthly article I hyperlinked above, you know that this statement is attributed to Pasi Sahlberg, an individual deeply involved in Finland’s educational transformation.  The principle to which he refers asserts that unless an educational endeavor is intentionally designed to produce a specific outcome, it is difficult to argue that gains on that outcome are entirely attributable to the educational endeavor in question.  However, as society has increasingly demanded that education prove its worth, it is deceptively easy to start by testing for an educational effect without ever asking whether the experience is really designed to best produce it.  To make matters worse, then we mandate improvement without addressing the systematic dysfunction that created the problem in the first place.


My sense of Augustana’s evolution regarding student learning outcomes is that we are in the midst of a process to make explicit what we have long valued implicitly.  We are trying to be clearer about what we want our students to learn, be more transparent about those efforts, and maximize the educational quality we provide.  In this context, Sahlberg’s comment on accountability and responsibility struck me in two ways . . .


First, the process of identifying outcomes and designing an educational program to meet those outcomes requires us to take full responsibility for the design of the program we are delivering.  When something is repeatedly greater than the sum of its parts, it isn’t just a happy accident.  Designing a successful educational program is more than just making pieces fit together – it’s constructing the pieces so that they fit together.


Second, just because an outcome idea sounds like it might be valid doesn’t make it so.  But in the absence of anything else, accountability measures that mean very little can all too easily become drivers of institutional policy – sometimes to the detriment of student learning.  However, the inverse can also be true.  An institution that takes full responsibility for the design of its educational programs and the system within which they exist will likely far exceed typical accountability standards because such an institution can make coherent, empirically-grounded, and compelling arguments for why it does what it does; arguments that quickly evaporate when a pre-packaged accountability measure is hurriedly slapped onto the back end of an educational process.


So I’d like to close by suggesting that we consider the statement quoted above in this way: If we take explicit responsibility for student learning and the design of the educational programs we provide, demonstrating our accountability – to our students or our accreditors – will be relatively easy by comparison.


Make it a good day,