Friday, June 8, 2012

Pathways to graduation: The need for both control and coherence

In a column in this morning's Inside Higher Ed, professor Vincent Tinto makes an argument for attending to student "momentum" when it comes to issues of college completion.  The take-home message is that gaining and maintaining momentum is a key factor in determining whether or not students complete college.  The logic is that the faster students move through their experience, the more likely they are to persist and finish.  Tinto also points to the work of The Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges as an example of how institutions and policy makers can use student completion data to identify "momentum points" or milestones that, when reached by students, significantly increase the likelihood of completion.  In many states (Florida, North Carolina, and Texas, to name a few), this work has led to an increased focus on increasing curricular structure and developing "pathways" that are associated with successful college completion.

While completion isn't a tremendous problem on my campus, time-to-degree is and we see increasing numbers of students taking 12 or more semesters to graduate.  Additionally, because of my work with new students, I see the problems that come in the absence of well organized curricula and clear pathways that can guide student decision-making as it relates to course selection (I recently commented on this issue here).  So, I have always been a proponent for increased curricular structure, constraint, and coherence, particularly with regard to the general education aspect of the student experience.

However, there is also a need to balance structure and constraint with the equally important need for students to be able to exercise some degree of control over their educational experiences.  I was reminded of this recently as I began reading Daniel Gilbert's book, Stumbling on Happiness.  Although I'm only a few chapters in, I've read enough to know that Gilbert's premise (backed by plenty of research that he cites in the book) is that we are pretty bad at predicting what will make us happy.  Gilbert opens the book with the argument that, while we believe we know what will make us happy and chart courses we believe will lead us there (e.g. I'll be happy when I have lots of money and am a partner in a law firm, so I'll go to law school now so that one day I can be happy), happiness is more dependent upon a much simpler factor--the degree to which we feel we have control over our experiences.  Of course, there are countless aspects of our lives we cannot control; however, if we perceive the inability to exercise control in too many instances, we become depressed, reactive, and unhappy.

So, my question after reading Chapter 1 of Gilbert's book was how institutions can preserve choice and an appropriate degree of control for students (especially with regard to curricular decisions), while still providing enough structure and guidance that students' experiences are both cohesive and efficient in terms of time-to-graduation.  Like Dewey argues in Experience and Education, I'm of the mind that complete freedom for learners is likely to be fragmented and wandering, ultimately resulting in experience which is "miseducative."  Additionally, too much freedom often leads to anxiety, resistance, and extreme frustration for learners wishing for guidance from a more knowledgeable other (I still remember the backlash against the professor who taught my Western Philosophy class when he gave students complete freedom to determine what we would do for our final projects--although they may not admit it, students often want someone to tell them what to do and how to do it, particularly when grades are on the line).  Consequently, there is a need for educators to consider how freedom and constraint can be balanced and integrated in ways that provide an experience that is both personally meaningful and educationally purposeful.

Campuses wishing to preserve control, while attending to completion agendas might consider the following:  :

  • Choice architecture:  Campus policies and systems result in choice systems for students.  When these systems are designed in thoughtful ways, they can leave room for students to exercise control while increasing the likelihood that students will make choices that are associated with positive outcomes.  For example, effective general education programs increase the likelihood that students will achieve learning outcomes by limiting the number of courses which fulfill a particular requirement (my institution has yet to learn that lesson), while ensuring that this list is long enough to allow adequate diversity when students make their choice as to which course to take.  
  • Decision-making tools:  As much as we complain about the poor choices made by students, we often are to blame because of our failure to provide students with the information they need in order to make informed choices.  And, giving students the information is only half the battle--we also have to be thoughtful about how the information is delivered.  The day of static webpages and poorly written catalogs is over.  Students want and need dynamic tools that can use student-specific data (provided by the student) to suggest customized actions or paths for students, based on their needs and interests--think "Choose your own Adventure" for course registration.
  • A Clear institutional mission:  An institution which is clear about its values and goals is well positioned to determine where student choice can be allowed and when institutional imperatives will rule the day.  Once campus leaders have clearly articulated what their uncompromising values are, they have a foundation from which to work and can go about determining how choice can be facilitated around these goals.  Additionally, when campuses work to create a culture on campus that aligns with these values, and then repeatedly and explicitly communicate these values to students, decisions are likely to be better and more in line with the hoped-for outcomes.
  • Mandatory and effective advising:  This may be the most important element.  Well-trained and knowledgeable advisors are the human element that can make everything else work.  Advisors can provide students with accurate information regarding campus policies, educate them about learning outcomes and institutional aims, and engage them in dialogue about their own academic goals.  An advisor who both understands (and supports) the institutional mission and values the importance of student self-authorship, can assist students in developing academic plans that allow them to meet both their own as well as institutional goals.  I have yet to see the decision tree, online tutorial, orientation session, or incentive system that can do that as well as a live human being.

No comments: