Friday, November 20, 2009

Does being "educated" include being "fit?"

This article describes a unique program at Lincoln University (Oxford, PA) that requires students identifed as "obese" to either demonstrate  that they have decreased their body mass index (BMI) or take a specially-designed "fitness for life" course that, in theory, should encourage students to adopt a more healthy lifestyle.

As you can imagine this has elicited a variety of interesting responses from members of the Lincoln community and others across the country.  My undergraduate degree is in Exercise Science and I moonlighted as a soccer coach before coming back to the academy, so you can guess where my leanings are (although I wouldn't say I agree with LU's methodology or logic).  But, the real question that this issue raised in my mind was what it means when a university awards a student a degree.

While every institution has its own unique mission and learning goals for its students, I think most would agree that one of their purposes is to provide students with experiences and opportunities that prepare them to be productive, engaged citizens who go out and do good things in the world.  To that end, institutions develop general education or core curricula that are intended to equip students with a general set of skills, attitudes, or abilities that will serve them well whether they end up performing heart surgeries, teaching 3rd graders cursive (btw, how long will that continue?  when was the last time any of us used that "general" skill?), or writing columns for the local paper.  Institutions also develop means of measuring or "assessing" what students have learned or gained in these areas and hold them to some sort of minimum standard.  If those standards are met, the student is granted a degree.  So, in some sense my degree from Brigham Young University is an indication that I have achieved a certain level of competence in the core areas that BYU deemed important when they created their University Core curriculum.

One of the many problems with the logic I have just described here is that universities don't have very good ways of measuring competence.  We subject students to a battery of tests, projects, papers, group-assignments, etc. that we hope will give us some insight into what they've learned, but most are articifial and disconnected from the real contexts and situations students will find themselves once they leave our campuses.  For instance, does the fact that I scored a total of 91% on the exams in my Child Development course mean that I will be a good father?  So, if we extrapolate this to some sort of health & wellness requirement (assuming that an institution has decided that part of a well-rounded education includes the ability to make good decisions about one's health), how does a university determine whether or not a student has achieved competence in that area?  

Looked at from this perspective, the Lincoln issue takes on a little more complexity.  Might they be onto something?  I'm not sure that I agree with the specifics of their requirement (among other things, measuring obesity at the beginning of the freshman year seems to leave out all those that become unfit during college), but there is something intriguing about a policy that requires students to demonstrate competence in a very concrete way.  Imagine how different our institutions would be if students left with a portfolio of hard evidence demonstrating what they had learned (or how much more fit they had become).  A university degree would take on a completely new meaning and employers, graduate schools, and anyone else who cares about higher education could have more confidence in knowing that college graduates do actually possess useful skills.  Right now a college degree is looking more and more like a written testament to a student's abilities to sit through long lectures and jump through hoops.

As much as we might dislike the problems with a policy like the one implemented at Lincoln, let's see what we might be able to learn from them in terms of accountability and real evidence for learning.

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