Monday, August 15, 2011

Continuing Academically Adrift

I was excited to read the final chapter of Academically Adrift, entitled "A Mandate for Reform." Although I enjoyed reading it, the final chapter was neither as revolutionary nor as specific as I hoped. The authors discuss several inhibitors to change, the most daunting of which is the lack of demand for learning, which I wrote about a few days ago. Their suggestions match much of what my own Future of Education Task Force concluded: we need a greater focus on student learning. This support must take the form of both respect and rewards, since as long as teaching is institutionally considered a lesser responsibility to research, then there will be no change.

Let me be clear that I enjoyed reading the book and consider it a significant contribution to the field. Perhaps it was unfair of me to expect that their conclusions would be more immediately actionable, since their stated goal was research, not reform. Consider, for example, the authors' suggestion that effective reform needs to happen from within the current system, allowing actors to innovate within the existing space of higher education. This compares to my Future of Education Task Force recommendation for what we called "The University Sandbox," an initiative that would be authorized to work within the university while ignoring conventional assumptions of higher education. Our recommendation was not codified to the point of being immediately implementable, but I was hoping that Academically Adrift would provide more examples of how institutions might consider approaching the problem of fostering educational innovation.

In the final chapter, the authors to begin to fall into the social science trap of claiming their results are broader than what they actually found. Their study used the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) to look specifically at critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing, measuring a cohort as they entered college and as they finished their sophomore year. They found that individual studying improved students' scores while group study did not, and the last chapter begins to conflate CLA achievement with learning in general. This matches my experience and intuition: a student's ability to individually write an essay should only be improved by that individual practicing writing essays. However, they neglect to mention that CLA-measured skills are not the only skills that need to be learned. For example, there is a body of research in Computer Science education that has shown that pair programming—undeniable a form of group study—improves learning and retention. The authors clear bias for individualized rigor could have been balanced with a caveat that there are disciplinary idiosyncrasies.

The final chapter's message could be summarized as, "Be deliberate about fostering student learning in higher education." The criticism of cargo-cult active learning was refreshing, given how many papers I have reviewed and presentations I have heard where the researcher has not demonstrated any significant understanding of the fundamental tenets of learning. I also appreciate their argument for more widespread teacher-training within doctoral programs. The crux of their argument is that for the foreseeable future, many more Ph.D.s will be adjunct faculty or in teaching roles than tenure-track at research-intensive schools.

There is one immediately actionable recommendation for faculty that the authors return to time and again: be rigorous. Their own study and several related studies have shown that rigorous coursework improves student academic achievement. This may seem obvious to those outside the ivory tower, but those of us on the inside have seen how easy it is to trade away rigor for easier teaching. This comes back to the delicate equilibrium I wrote about the other day, in which learning is generally not considered worth institutional sacrifice. The good news is that students are hungry for it.

Despite any nitpicking, I do strongly recommend the book, especially to anyone who is just starting to dip their feet into higher education reform. It is probably best read in conjunction with a book more specifically about learning, such as How People Learn, How Learning Works, or, for like-minded technocrats, Pragmatic Thinking and Learning. (NB: I have not yet read the second book mentioned above, but I have heard good things about it.)

1 comment: