Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Why are Employers Dissatisfied With Universities?

Employers want more from recent college graduates than they're getting.  Take a look at this table summarizing abilities where employers think recent US college and university graduates should be better.  (I'd guess they'd say the same of graduates with master's degrees and Ph.D.s.)

Obviously, institutions have general education programs that are supposed to teach students how to use knowledge in order to think in these ways.  So why do these gaps persist?  All universities need bigger budgets and brighter incoming students. But that doesn't mean that we can't do better with our current students and our current budgets. I think three mistaken notions are interfering with our ability to graduate more capable students.

Mistaken Notion #1: In order to learn to solve unfamiliar complex problems, students must spend more than 90% of their class time and homework time studying what experts have accomplished or discovered in the past.  
Reality: Suppose you wanted to become physically stronger.  What fraction of your workout time should you spend watching exercise videos?  It does comfort many students and faculty when students spend most of their time learning from experts. But to become capable, a student must work on a startlingly large number of problems, and get good coaching as they do so.
Pick a degree program in which you teach.  How's the current balance between learning from experts versus personally doing the work of the field? (One of our Teaching Day speakers, Anders Ericcson, will address this point this coming Friday, October 4.)

Mistaken Notion #2: To develop a capability such as writing, the student should take (only) one course on that capability. 
Reality: Suppose you needed to be able to lift a 100 pound weight tomorrow.  Would it have been sufficient preparation to lift weights intensively in 2010, and then lift nothing until you needed that skill in 2013? Neural science research demonstrates that mental capabilities decay with disuse, just as physical strength does.
That's why some academic programs at institutions like Stanford are now using a 'spiral' approach to designing courses of study.  Crucial capabilities are periodically developed, a bit at a time, in course after course. Each time the student returns to a concept or way of thinking, it's developed further, applied in a new context, and at a greater level of sophistication.

Theory #3: To succeed in X after graduation, study only X.  (For example, if you want to become a successful chemist in the world, it's sufficient to take only chemistry courses, plus direct prerequisites such as physics and mathematics.)  
Reality:   Notice how many of those gaps about which employers are grumbling are at least partly outside the fields where faculty in a department do their research and publishing. For example:
  • 89% of employers thought that recent college graduates are too weak in written and oral communications.   (To test whether your students are getting enough practice, coaching and instruction in communication, ask some of your employer alumni to judge a random sample of written and oral communications by students who are soon to graduate.  Our Assessment Office can help you with this.  Do your judges see communications capability as a strength of your students?)
  • 81% of employers believed that recent college graduates are too weak in critical thinking and analytic reasoning;  79% were dissatisfied with their ability to apply what they've learned to real world problems; 75% asserted that recent graduates are too weak in complex problem-solving. Real world tasks and jobs usually require knowledge from their major used wisely in combination with other kinds of knowledge.  For example, graduates need to be able to organize in teams, and deal with dysfunctional teams.  How many courses in each degree program offer students practice, instruction and coaching in that area? How would a panel of your alumni rate the skills of current graduates in that area?
  • 75% of employers wanted more from recent graduates in ethics. How many courses in your program contribute to a student's ability to reason and act ethically? 
The Association of American Colleges and Universities' LEAP program has been collecting examples of programs that take a different approach to developing these essential learning outcomes (capabilities). And accreditors (and perhaps the Feds) seem to be gradually moving toward paying attention to how we teach and judge (assess) students' development in these areas; the Lumina Foundation's Degree Qualification Profile is intended to be a tool for such assessment and perhaps regulation.

I suspect that university graduates, their employers, and accreditors will soon be paying more attention to what universities like GW are doing to help graduates do well in all these dimensions of a liberal education, no matter major or graduate program they're in.

Do you agree? Would the changes advocated by AAC&U and others be a step forward for your program, or a really bad idea?

Sunday, September 22, 2013

What Kinds of Teaching Improvement are Most Important?

Which kinds of teaching improvement are most important for the Teaching & Learning Collaborative (TLC) to support over the coming years?  To advance that discussion, I'll suggest three interdependent goals now, and a couple more in an upcoming post:

1. Support learning-centered teaching.  There's a lovely cartoon showing a boy with his dog. The boy is talking to his friend, and boasting that he's taught Spot to whistle.  The friend responds dubiously, "I don't hear him whistling."  The first boy retorts, "I said I taught him. I didn't say he learned it!"

I hope we can help an increasing number of faculty teach in a way that's guided by the actual learning that occurs in their academic programs.  Faculty who understand teaching in this way ('the learning paradigm') believe that virtually every student is capable of excellence, if teaching can guide and stimulate them appropriately.  Because it's not obvious at the start what needs to be done to help students achieve excellence, there's a certain amount of trial and error every term - the instructor tries something and, if it works for some students, do more of it. If it doesn't work for some students, try something else.

  • The alternative view of teaching, sometimes called the 'instruction paradigm', is reflected in the comments of Spot's owner.  Teaching and learning are independent activities.  If you organize and present the content clearly, then you've taught it.  If the students learn it, that's entirely to their credit. If they don't, that's on them, too.  
Of course, it's not simple for faculty (or students) to see whether and how the student is learning, which leads to a second goal for TLC and units like it.

2. Support evidence-guided teaching. Because teaching needs to be guided by actual learning, then the faculty need to gather evidence of how the learning process is going.

More easily said than done.  For example, if the faculty member assesses the wrong thing --  testing whether the student can remember an expert's analysis when the real goal is to help students learn to analyze for themselves -- then scores or grades will mislead both the instructor and the student.

Testing what students have learned is necessary but not sufficient.  Analogy: people learning to bat in the game of baseball. Measuring their batting average, no matter how precisely, won't help them learn to hit better.  A very different kind of feedback is needed for that, e.g., slow motion video of how they swing at a pitch.  Faculty need to learn both how to provide two very different kinds of feedback for themselves and for their students: what the student has learned and how the student is learning.  Few faculty have received any training in the many ways in which these things have been done.  We can help with that.

3. Support faculty collaboration to improve learning.   I mean "faculty collaboration" in two different ways.

The first is illustrated by a research finding about composition courses.  In many evaluations of learning in composition, students are asked to write a composition at the beginning of the term and a second composition on a similar topic at the end of the term.  External graders then assess each paper without knowing when it was written.  The papers written at the beginning and at the end of the writing course often get similar grades. This does not mean that the students learned nothing about writing: over two or more courses, the essays do measurably improve.  The important lesson: the kinds of capabilities useful in life are often so complex and personal that one course often can't do not enough to create improvements large enough to measure.  As a senior once told me about something he'd learned, "I don't think I could have learned how to think that way in any one course, but, over the years, it gradually sank in."

That's why capstone courses and major projects in upper division courses can be so important: as sources of insight for faculty teaching lower division courses on where they're succeeding and where they need to improve.  

The second important kind of collaboration is between faculty and others, e.g.,  instructional designers, assessment experts, publishers and other materials developers outside the university.  I'll choose just one example: instructional designers in a number of departments at GW are currently testing ePortfolio products that faculty can use, individually and as teams, to gather and analyze evidence of student learning.

So those are my first three suggestions for where we should focus our support: learning-centered teaching, evidence-guided teaching, and collaboration to improve learning.

Over the next 5-10 years, what (additional) kinds of teaching improvement do you think that units like TLC should support?