Friday, August 14, 2009

The implicit messages we send: What do students hear when we talk?

Some interesting things have been happening on my campus as of late.  We have eliminated our College of Health & Human Performance and discontinued the wellness requirement that was formally part of our general education requirements for graduation.  It's important to know that I am a graduate of that college and former physical educator and coach; consequently, one could say that the views shared here are biased (I won't argue with that).  However, that aside, this has raised some questions for me about what students may infer when decisions like this are made.  I'll use the decisions referenced above as an example and foundation for my argument and then offer some supporting examples.

In the email that students received from our University Administration this afternoon they were notified that they would not be required to complete a wellness requirement in order to graduate but that "As part of this change, we encourage you to make a healthy and active lifestyle a priority."  

I'm fairly sure that this is a sincere plea to students to continue to make good choices about their personal wellness; however, the question that wasn't asked by those that made this decision and drafted the email was how students would interpret this policy change.  What does a student really hear in all of this?  For most students I think the message they get is that health & wellness, at least during the college years, isn't all that important.  After all, if it was, wouldn't BYU require it?  And, what's with discontinuing the College of Health & Human Performance?  Are those departments and courses not as important as Biology or Business Marketing?  While many students will still take advantage of the elective courses offered by BYU, the students that needed the Wellness requirement most (those that wouldn't engage in exercise or healthy living on their own) will likely leave the university without ever being exposed to those faculty members, ideas, or activities.

The sad state of American's physical health aside, the larger issue here is that we need to think more carefully about how the policies we implement communicate our values to students (for a much more thoughtful and academic commentary on this idea see John Tagg's discussion of espoused theories and theories-in-use from Chapter 2 of his book The Learning Paradigm College).  Some other poor examples:
  • Notifying students that they have received institutional scholarships by referring them to their "My Financial Account" page where the scholarship amount appears, rather than sending a congratulatory letter.
Message:  Don't be too impressed with yourself, if this was an important scholarship or a noteworthy honor we would have told you.

  •   Teaching first-year courses in large lecture halls seating upwards of 800 students
Message:  Interacting with faculty members, getting to know other students, or participating in class aren't important parts of learning.

  • Encouraging students to bring as much AP or concurrent enrollment credit with them as possible as they move from high school to college.
Message:  Higher education is just another set of hoops to jump through on your way to "real life."  Education means checking things off a list.

I'm sure you could add to this list if you thought hard enough.  Now, the good news.  There are schools that have aligned their decisions and actions very closely with their core values and students are picking up on it.  Although not universities, KIPP Schools are a great model for what I'm talking about here.  Some examples:

  • Introducing every new student by name on the first day, to the entire student body.
Message:  Individuals matter; we know you and care about you

  • "Stopping the School"--When someone violates a significant school rule, classes screech to a halt, and teachers and students hold a meeting to discuss what happened and how to fix it.
Message:  The things we ask you to do really matter; rules are a way of helping us become who we want to be.

  • College visits by 5th graders (local colleges) & 7th graders (prestigious east coast schools).
Message:  My teachers really mean it when they say that what they want most is for me to make it to college.

For another excellent example of an organization (outside of education) that aligns its practices with its values see Tom Kelley's book The Ten Faces of Innovation and his anaylsis of IDEO, a design consulting firm based in San Francisco, California.  


Drake said...

I also think that you can avoid any unwanted "implicit messages" by stating the purposes. I know that changes like this just don't happen, there's a lot of deliberation and many people have to agree. You can tell us why you made the change--we're big kids! As always, I think you make some good points in your posts, and I agree. One thing though, Bryce--I feel like lately we're just hearing about what's wrong with BYU. I know you love this university, so I'd like to see a post about some things that are right. Keep blogging!

gary said...

Great post--and certainly true that schools send message by what they do that contradict what they say. Your post raised a bunch of questions for me:

Do you think higher ed avoids KIPP activities on developmental grounds--that once you are 18 and on your own you don't need that sort of individualized attention?

Is there something about the culture of BYU that explains BYU's particular approach?

Can institutions actually shape student responses to implicit messages, or are students in control of them?

How do individual employees of learning institutions respond to the implicit "you're not that important" messages that their employers send?

lionofzion said...

As an incoming freshman at said university, I have to say I was pretty pleased when I got the message announcing that Wellness is no longer a GE requirement-- not because I don't believe health is just as, if not more, important than just about anything else I could be learning, but because my experience with high school gym and health courses, including an online course through BYU, was mostly a demonstration that required health and fitness classes become just hoops to jump through for most students, and are often poorly designed and taught. If I thought health classes actually improved health, I'd probably have a different mindset.

But aside from that, I really enjoy your comments on how schools can improve the message they send to students, and I think it's interesting that most of the examples you cite are about increasing personal contact and 'face time' between students and potential role models, while the communication problems you cite, from the original e-mail to the push for AP credits, are all forces that reduce face-time and leave students with a sense of alienation.

Unknown said...

Thanks for sharing the student perspective on the wellness requirement. You make excellent points about the real value (or lack thereof) of most health/wellness courses that are taught at universities.

So, a question for you. Given that required courses don't improve health all that much, what could a university do to help students adopt a healthy lifestyle?

lionofzion said...

That's a tough question, especially because as students become increasingly independent, they become increasingly likely to view attempts to promote health as attempts to interfere in their own lifestyle choices.

My own amateur recommendation would be to focus on making information widely available.

As you noted in this post though, one of the key ways to demonstrate the importance of something is to give people face-time or some other personal connection associated with it-- so if the school were to get every student coming to campus an appointment with a dietician, emphasizing the importance of healthy diet in a personal way, then students would perhaps be more likely to absorb and value health information.