Why Implementing a Richer, More Robust Academic Experience Is So Difficult

In my postings on the Higher Education Beta, I urge colleges and universities to adopt six principles that I believe should underpin a college education:

Principle 1. A more holistic, developmental and transformational education – which seeks to promote growth across multiple dimensions: cognitive, of course, but also ethical, socio-emotional and interpersonal.

Principle 2. A skills-based and results-oriented education – which does much more to ensure that students become better communicators and apply themselves to applying critical thinking, close reading and digital skills in real-life contexts.

Principle 3. A less disciplinary education but encompassing the broader concerns of the humanities and social sciences, which addresses important and enduring questions and which teaches students how to think like an anthropologist, historian, literary critic, political scientist, psychologist and sociologist .

Principle 4. An education that involves far more experiential and active learning, with expanded opportunities for mentored research, internships, study abroad, and on-the-job, community, and project-based learning experiences.

Principle 5. An education that provides more synergistic, integrated, and cohesive career paths and complements classroom learning with workshops and a certificate to increase students’ job-aligned skills.

Principle 6. An education that offers more mentorship, more proactive academic and non-academic guidance and support, and that embeds students in a community or learning cohort to promote a sense of belonging and connection.

None of these ideas are original. Indeed, many of them are already being piloted in various institutions across the country.

Still, I think it’s fair to say that, as inspiring as such a vision might be, the vast majority of institutions have taken a different approach. Rather than extending a rich educational experience to all students, these campuses have adopted a “complementary” strategy.

  • To promote educational innovation, institutions establish a teaching center and a center for instructional design and educational technology.
  • To increase retention rates and help diversify access to high-demand fields, campuses are expanding existing learning support centers, including learning centers for writing, math, and science, summer bridging programs and additional education in areas with high attrition rates.
  • To reduce attrition and increase completion rates, colleges are implementing technology and data-driven counseling practices to identify curriculum bottlenecks and expedite timely interventions when students are off track .
  • To better prepare undergraduates for the job market, universities are investing in campus career services, expanding internship opportunities, opening a creative space, an entrepreneurship center and an innovation hub, promote undergraduate student networking and increase the number of job-aligned students. certificate programs.

There is nothing wrong with such investments. They are necessary and even essential. But the fact is that a complementary approach fails to address the fundamental problem, the quality of the educational experience itself.

We all know why, and the lack of financial resources is only part of the problem.

  • Campuses find it extremely difficult to come to a consensus on essential undergraduate learning outcomes or how to agree on how to measure whether students are actually achieving those outcomes.
    It is much less controversial to institute a wide range of graduation requirements that can be met simply by passing a designated course.
  • Most professors prefer to teach courses directly in their discipline and preferably in their area of ​​specialization.
    This discipline- and faculty-centric approach discourages the kind of cross-departmental collaboration that is needed to create more synergistic, cohesive, or integrated degree pathways.
  • Teachers have little incentive to spend their time on issues such as active learning, teaching writing, substantive feedback, or mentoring, except, perhaps, for doctoral students.
    While some individual instructors certainly break new ground in pedagogy, provide students with in-depth feedback, and take on the role of advisor and mentor, most do not.

So what can be done? Here are some possible solutions.

  1. Rely more on staff expertise and other types of expertise (e.g. alumni) to teach soft skills, from writing to innovation, from career readiness to justice social and to serve as mentors.
    By using existing staff and alumni, an institution does not need to add to the administrative burden.
  2. Establish more thematic and career-oriented cohort and research programs.
    The goal should be to get as many undergraduates into an interest group to promote a sense of belonging. These cohort programs may also be led by staff who can provide dedicated guidance and mentoring.
  3. Learn how to scale faculty instructional training and support.
    Some institutions, like the University of Central Florida, have mandated training for everyone who teaches online. An additional or alternative strategy is to give instructors access to an instructional designer or an advanced graduate or undergraduate student familiar with instructional technology. I myself, at various times in my academic career, had access to such “technicians,” and many of my most important pedagogical innovations grew out of these collaborations.

At a minimum, institutions need to do more to encourage faculty to integrate the science of learning and interactive, collaborative and active learning technologies into their courses and to make their courses more outcome-oriented,

  1. Introduce faculty who bridge disciplines and address big questions.
    At my institution, the late Steven Weinberg was not only a Nobel laureate and one of the leading theoretical physicists of our time, but an incredible communicator who could bring the frontiers of science to an educated readership. Many more students should have been exposed to his thinking.

There was only one Steven Weinberg, but every institution has professors who provocatively tackle key issues of our time and who can speak eloquently to large audiences.

  1. Encourage and encourage cross-departmental collaboration and the development of more cohesive and synergistic pathways in high demand areas.
    In my administrative roles, I found that it was not excessively costly to have faculty members from various departments work together to create or revise courses that contributed to more cohesive degree pathways, including courses in physics, chemistry, human sciences and social sciences which contributed directly to a course in biomedical sciences, pre-health professions.

Institutional leadership must support evidence-based initiatives that can be scaled affordably and effectively, that promote equity, and that improve critical learning outcomes. As Stephen C. Ehrmann told me in an email, “It is this constellation that drives the improvements in quality, access, and affordability, not any of its innovations. ”

The role of senior management is essential: as Ehrmann explains in his important book Pursuing Quality, Access, and Affordability: A Field Guide to Improving Higher Educationpresidents or provosts must set a vision, articulate the needs of the institution, and push for cross-silo collaboration.

But perhaps the most valuable contribution senior leadership can make is identifying, showcasing, recognizing and rewarding campus innovators and devising strategies to bring their innovations to scale.

I have as many opinions as anyone else, and I have a number of concerns about what is happening in higher education right now. I worry, first, about a post-pandemic return to the status quo: a return to lectures lacking well-defined learning objectives or in-depth active learning and rigorously assessed.

I am also concerned about the tendency, in the name of accessibility and affordability, to award a bachelor’s degree for what I personally do not consider to be the equivalent of a college education. Examples include counting high school courses, taken without a content domain specialist or college-level expectations, toward a college degree, or processing self-paced, self-directed courses without regular and substantial interaction with a subject matter expert. subject, as equal to a series of university courses.

I may be old-fashioned, but what I consider essential to a liberal arts education is interaction with a scholar and with fellow students.

Second, I’m also concerned about a growing gap between the kind of education that honors students and those in the most advanced and demanding programs (like computer science, data science, and neuroscience), and what the The overwhelming majority of students (who typically major in biology, business, communication, and psychology) graduate, and in too many cases are unprepared for success after graduation.

Even as academics talk about higher education as a system, we all know, deep in our hearts, that it is anything but. Rather, it is an amalgamation of disparate and highly unequal institutions. Some undergraduates receive an education like mine, characterized by intense interactions with faculty and peers, hands-on research opportunities, and off-campus study (including, for me, at Fisk University and the Library of Congress). Others have access to Greek life, intercollegiate athletics, and a host of extracurricular activities, usually associated with formal classes. Many, and perhaps most students, get less than that: a commuter or online experience with minimal interaction with a teacher-scholar and fellow students.

We need a call to arms or a call to the better angels of our nature: a demand that all students, not just the most privileged, receive the kind of higher education that truly engages students, integrates them into a community of learning and provides them with genuine mentorship, gives them the chance to engage in research and tackle the greatest issues of our time and of all time, and better prepare them for the age adult.

If we embrace a common vision of what college can and should be, then we can begin the hard work of turning that dream into reality.

Steven Mintz is a professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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