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Reactions to the Presidents’ Alliance, Part 2

Here’s round two of our series of comments on the Presidents’ Alliance for Excellence in Student Learning and Accountability.  Today, two social scientists weigh in.

Josipa Roksa, assistant professor of sociology at the U. of Virginia and co-author of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (forthcoming in January from the U. of Chicago Press):

The Presidents’ Alliance for Excellence signifies the growing attention of higher-education leadership to student learning, which is a welcomed and much needed development. Alliance members should be applauded for their vision and commitment to place learning on institutional and national agendas.

While this laudatory initiative has great potential, some might worry about its conspicuous absences.  For example, our leading universities, the ones that excel at selecting and attracting the “best and brightest,” do not appear to be deeply invested in the endeavor.  According to the most recent U.S. News & World Report rankings (an admittedly imperfect and problematic metric), no institution among the top 20 national universities is participating in the alliance, and only two from the top 50 are involved (the University of Southern California and the University of Wisconsin at Madison).  The absence of the leading universities is notable not only because they teach undergraduates, but also because they are deemed to be the best places to train the future professoriate and often serve as organizational models for the larger field.

And there is another conspicuous absence: the faculty, or, more specifically, the classroom.

Among the four main categories of commitments, three focus on collecting and reporting data, while only one is about using data.  Moreover, none of the main categories or subcategories includes a reference to training current and future faculty (i.e., graduate students) in teaching and learning, changing institutional incentives to reward excellent teaching, building coalitions with and among faculty regarding teaching standards and practices, or the like.  Institutions often note that they will work with faculty and students to develop assessment strategies and program initiatives.  But the broadness and vagueness of the majority of the statements appear conducive more to simply adding the issue to already crowded institutional agendas, rather than to providing faculty with the tools and incentives to change what happens in curriculum and instruction.

Reading the plans, one gets too limited a sense of how presidents will ensure that their faculty are capable of and will teach specific skills in the classroom that are identified as important and/or in need of improvement by assessment endeavors.  The closest some plans seem to come is to propose specific courses, whether on writing, critical thinking, globalization, or whatever is seen as a weakness.  But a semester of exposure to complex ideas and processes is not sufficient to transform undergraduates’ learning experiences.

While this initiative is certainly welcome and should be embraced by all those concerned with improving undergraduate education, bolder and more far-reaching endeavors for changing classroom practices, and providing training and incentives for faculty, will hopefully emerge from the work of the alliance and others moving forward.  Problems with undergraduate education are significant and require more than a few adjustments to business as usual.

Laura W. Perna, professor of education at the U. of Pennsylvania and an editor of Theoretical Perspectives on Student Success: Understanding the Contributions of the Disciplines (Jossey-Bass, 2008):

The pledges announced by the Presidents’ Alliance for Excellence in Student Learning and Accountability are an important step toward providing the public with information about the quality of student learning at our nation’s colleges and universities.

The strategies and approaches outlined in the current and planned initiatives of the 71 participating institutions vary greatly.  Such variation is not only expected but also appropriate, given the great diversity of America’s colleges and universities and the importance of institutional autonomy. A review of current and planned institutional initiatives also shows that progress toward assessing student-learning outcomes varies greatly. Nonetheless, together the pledges offer hope for greater progress.

The pledges generally include attention to many critical dimensions of the process, including the specification of learning outcomes; the identification of approaches to assessing these outcomes; consideration of the most appropriate national and institutional sources of data for assessing outcomes and for the systems required to manage and analyze the data; procedures for passively and actively disseminating results; and approaches to involving and supporting faculty in the assessment of student learning outcomes.

Particularly promising is the way that these pledges reflect, and likely further encourage, a commitment to sharing information within and across institutions about how to best assess student-learning outcomes.

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