Friday, February 26, 2010

How much should we "require" of students?

Brigham Young University (BYU) recently announced a new and expanded Freshman Mentoring initiative that will provide every incoming freshman with the opportunity to connect with an upperclassmen peer mentor and enroll in two linked university core courses.   While most people associated with BYU are very excited about the change, we have encountered some resistance from incoming students and their parents who don't like the idea of being "required" to participate.

My experiences over the last week or so with these students has left me wondering how two principles of learning can peacefully coexist:

(1)  Students should have opportunities to make meaningful choices about how and what they are learning and

(2)  Universities expect students to engage in selected learning activities because they are believed to lead to desirable outcomes.  

So, the question I've been left pondering when I hang up the phone with a frustrated mother is how much an institution can rightfully require their students to do.  It is almost universally accepted that institutions can require certain things of students in the way of graduation requirements; however, in most cases these requirements are merely a list of courses that a student must take or a number of curricular requirements that must be fulfilled.  There are some institutions who also require students to complete capstone experiences or to create portfolios demonstrating competence in particular learning outcome areas.  My first undergraduate institution (Mars Hill College) even required students to attend "chapel hour" 40 times during the course of their four years in order to graduate.  

For good or for bad, BYU "requires" very little of students.  As long as they fulfill a set of broad general education and religious education requirements, and meet the requirements of their particular program, they can graduate with a degree.  This has always bee interesting to me because I often hear high-level administrators praise the merits of captsone-like internships, study-abroad experiences, and mentored learning.  I've wondered why, if these things seem to make a difference in student learning, we don't ask all students to participate.  

This all begs the question of student volition and how connected it is to how much and how well they learn.  Do things like having a mentor, being part of a learning community, or attending weekly devotionals make a difference for all students or just those that choose to participate?  And, what happens when we compel, somewhat forcefully, students to participate who might not otherwise?  Not surprisingly, mentoring literature from fields outside of higher education suggests that informal mentoring relationships generally lead to positive learning outcomes at a higher rate than assigned relationships.   What's more, formal mentoring relationships are prone to becoming dysfunctional and leading to a host of negative outcomes for both mentors and proteges.  

It's possible that the resistance my colleagues and I have seen will decrease over time as peer mentoring becomes part of the culture of BYU.  But, it's also possible that we've made a terrible mistake by requiring students to participate in the program.  Thoughts?  When should institutions require things of students?  And, how do we make those pills easier to swallow in cases when learners object to the co-curricular things they are asked to do?

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