Data, Analysis, ACTION (now the camera’s bright lights shine on you!)

A couple of weeks ago, the Assessment for Improvement Committee (AIC) and Institutional Research and Assessment (IR&A) hosted the third of three Friday Conversations focused on improving our students’ cognitive sophistication. Unless you’ve been living under a rock (or a pile of semester transition documents!), you know by now that one of the primary functions of AIC and IR&A is to foster an organizational culture of perpetual improvement. To that end, we run a perpetual cycle of data collection, analysis, and communication about the relationships between the student learning and student experience to shine a light on the ways in which we can improve what we do as a college.

The cycle that culminated this year (the entire process takes 5-6 years) focused on the category of learning outcomes we have called “cognitive sophistication.” In particular, we explored data gathered from the cohort of students who entered Augustana in the fall of 2013 and graduated in the spring of 2017 to examine the development of our students’ inclination to, and interest in, thinking about complex or complicated issues or ideas. Just in case you need to catch yourself up, have a quick look at the three previous posts about this process:

  1. Does our Students’ Interest in Complex Thinking Change over Four Years
  2. What Experiences Improve our Student’s Inclination Toward Complex Thinking
  3. Doing Something with What We Now Know

In the fall term, we presented what we had found about the nature of our student’s growth and collected your suggestions about student experiences and characteristics that might influence this growth. In the winter term, we presented the results of testing your suggestions to identify the student experiences that appear to be statistically significant predictors (i.e., particularly influential experiences) of our students’ growth. By contrast, during the spring term Friday Conversation, AIC and IR&A changes it up a bit and turn the session over to whoever shows up. Because if we – meaning the Augustana community – are going to convert our findings into demonstrable improvements, then we – meaning AIC and IR&A – need to hand these findings over to you and let you shape the way that we translate evidence into improvement.

If you clicked on the third post linked above, you didn’t find the results of the third Friday Conversation, but rather a plug and a plea for attendees. Fortunately, a healthy number of faculty and staff showed up ready to put their brains to work. Folks broke into three groups and narrowed a range of ideas into one or two practical ways that the college could put our findings to use. So without further ado, here are the focal points of the conversation from the last Friday Conversation.

Learning in Context

The first set of findings from our data suggested that when students engage in hands-on or experiential learning experiences, their inclination toward complex thinking seems to increase. This may be because experiencing learning in real-world or hands-on settings inevitably add a context that often complicates what might have seemed more simple when discussed in the sanitary safety of a classroom. As students get accustomed to learning or applying prior learning in these real-world settings, research on experiential learning reveals that students find this learning more interesting and sometimes even invigorating.

Even though Augustana offers all sorts of hands-on learning experiences (e.g., internships, research with faculty, community involvement, etc.), it seems that the distribution of these opportunities across majors is uneven. As a result, students in some programs have a much higher chance of gaining access to these kinds of experiences than other students. The faculty and staff focused on this topic considered policy or practice ideas that could bring more of these kinds of opportunities to programs where they have not traditionally thrived. At the same time, the faculty and staff who joined this part of the conversation emphasized the need to offer professional development in order to help faculty in these programs imagine or craft an expanded range of hands-on learning opportunities, especially in disciplines where faculty research tends to be a solo endeavor or the nature of that research tends to explore far beyond an undergraduate’s scope of understanding.

Integrative Advising

This discussion focused on the “integrative” part of integrative advising. Our findings suggested that the more students engage in the integrative aspects of advising conversations (i.e. when faculty or staff prod students to weave together the variety of things they’ve done in college – AKA that long list at the bottom of the email signature – into a coherent narrative), the more they tend to develop an inclination toward complex thinking. This may be because asking students to turn their own raw data (after all, a list of disparate activities is very much like a set of raw data) into a story requires them to engage in complex thinking about uncertainty from two directions: 1) what themes are already present throughout my various activities that could form the basis of a compelling narrative and 2) given where I want to end up after college, how should I alter my list of activities to better prepare for success in that setting?

Participants in this discussion honed in on three ideas that are either already in development or could be introduced. First, they talked about the existing FYI proposal that includes a portfolio. This portfolio might be an especially good way to get first-year students to map out their college experience with the end (i.e. who they want to be when they receive their diploma) explicitly in mind. Second, the participants talked about the need for a way to continue this way of thinking beyond the first year portfolio and landed on a common assignment within the Reasoned Examination of Faith course (formerly Christian Traditions) that would focus on vocation-seeking and purpose. Third, they identified a continuing need for faculty development that would help individuals apply holistic/integrative advising practices no matter the advising context.

Interdisciplinary Discussions

The third group of faculty and staff tackled the challenge of increasing student participation in interdisciplinary discussions. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise by now that the experiences that we found to predict greater gains in cognitive sophistication were those that required students to apply one set of perspectives or ideas within a different, and often more tangible, context or framework. Augustana already offers several avenues for these kinds of conversations (e.g., Salon, Symposium Day, etc.), and there is a certain subset of students who continually participate with enthusiasm. But increasing student participation in these events means focusing on the subset of students who don’t jump at these opportunities. One possibility included finding ways for students to attend conferences in the region when they aren’t presenting research. Another possibility included fostering more interdisciplinary student groups. A third intriguing idea involved the conversations about a Creativity Center on campus and the idea that this initiative might be an ideal vehicle to bring together students from disciplines that might not normally intersect.

Now comes the hardest part of this process. There isn’t a lot of reason to collect student learning data and identify the experiences that shape that learning if we don’t do anything with what we find out.  AIC and IR&A will continue to encourage the campus to plug these findings into policy, program, or curricular design. But we need you to take these findings and discussion points and champion them within your own work.

When you (notice the “when” rather than “if”?) have implemented something cool and creative, can you send me an email and tell me about it?  I’ll be sure to share it with the rest of the college and celebrate your work!

Make it a good day,