The Imperative to Improve College Learning

Affordability and credential attainment are important goals. But the big question for higher education now, some of the enterprise's best minds say, is "completion of what?"

January 22, 2020
 

If you were trying to kick off a new column about the state of college teaching and learning, to put a stake in the ground as a starting point for what's to come, where would you begin?

Find a longtime observer for some perspective?

Identify a collection of thoughtful essays from a group of experts convened by a national body to assess the state of learning, and ask the editor to summarize them?

Elicit the views of one of the most astute higher education researchers, or a thoughtful former college president (not all of them are, you know), or the recently retired head of a foundation whose work focuses on research on learning?

Or, as a shortcut, you could just talk to Michael S. McPherson, who is all of the above.

***

I won't bother listing all of McPherson's titles and bona fides; here's a brief bio. But his most relevant experience, for the job at hand here, was that he co-chaired (with Roger Ferguson of TIAA) the American Academy of Arts and Sciences' Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education.

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The commission's 2017 report, whose findings Inside Higher Ed's Colleen Flaherty thoughtfully explored upon its release, was as thorough and wide-ranging as you'd anticipate its expansive topic would require. It identified three major priorities for ensuring that all Americans have access to the potentially life-changing opportunity of a high-quality higher education: strengthening the student educational experience, increasing completion and reducing inequities, and controlling costs and increasing affordability.

The commission very purposefully made the quality of learning its top priority, because most of the public policy conversation about higher education has focused on access, completion and affordability. And while the report itself pays attention to all three objectives, it was the quality question that the American Academy -- and McPherson -- chose to explore late last fall in an issue of Daedalus, the academy's journal.

"In higher education," unlike in elementary and secondary education, "questions about what and how much students are learning and how their learning is related to the quality of instruction they receive tend to take a back seat," McPherson wrote, with his co-author, Sandy Baum, in their introductory essay to the Daedalus issue. "Instead, questions about college admissions, pricing and cost, debt, and financial returns dominate the news and policy discussion. These are worthy topics of study, but they sidestep examination of what goes on inside the 'black box' of teaching and learning that college students actually experience."

There are logical reasons why questions about learning have typically taken a back seat to issues of access and affordability.

It's fairly easy to quantify, for instance, the extent to which American higher education has been undemocratic in terms of access, with rich kids much likelier than poor ones and white and (some) Asian students likelier than black and brown ones to go to college.

And issues of affordability -- rising prices, ballooning debt and the like -- are both quantifiable and eminently comprehensible, to anyone who understands dollars and cents. The flashing neon sign of hitting $1 trillion in cumulative student debt (and now $1.5 trillion) has thrust affordability to the top of the heap of public consciousness.

But the black box of teaching and learning, as McPherson and Baum call it, is another matter. They list some questions: "What kinds of knowledge and skills are students gaining? How are students developing as human beings and as members of society? How do faculty prepare for their work, get feedback on it, and improve their teaching? How does the larger educational environment within which students are embedded meet their needs?"

The lack of attention paid to questions like these is evident when one casts an eye elsewhere on the education landscape, McPherson notes in an interview. During his time as president of the Spencer Foundation, he worked closely with the University of Michigan's Deborah Ball and other researchers who "really worked hard at this super-challenging issue of effective elementary and secondary education," he said. "There really is not a counterpart [endeavor] with the same level of seriousness and intensity within higher education."

And it's not hard to view the "lack of progress on the measurement of learning as a reflection of a lack of interest in teaching" within American higher education, McPherson suggests. Think how much effort (and money) colleges and universities (and rankings organizations!) pay to figuring out what qualifies as good research. Nothing remotely similar has happened on the learning side.

Why is that? McPherson largely agrees with a theory I posit: throughout higher education's history (arguably until now), the agenda has been set by the most highly selective public and private colleges and universities. The Ivy League universities, and the Stanfords and UVAs and Williamses of the world, have been assumed by the public to offer the highest-quality education because the "best" students go there.

Do we know that the most learning happens at those places? No, but they are "winning" under the current setup in which we don't really know, and they have little incentive in a system in which understanding how and how much students learn was a priority. If it was important to Princeton and Yale to know whether their students were learning more than their counterparts at Mercer County Community College or the University of New Haven, we can be pretty sure they would have developed (or paid ETS to develop) a way to measure college-level learning.

"If we're going to develop new ways of measuring learning, it's not going to develop at the elites -- they have no incentive to do that," McPherson says.

To the extent there is a "learning problem" in the United States right now -- whether that be defined as too little learning going on, or learning that isn't aligned with what people need to succeed in work and life and society -- the stakes are highest for students at the vast majority of colleges and universities that are not highly selective.

"The job you have to do at a place like Williams [where McPherson taught for 22 years] or Macalester [where he was president] or Stanford [where he is a visiting professor this year] is so different, because you have carefully selected people who are exquisitely prepared and selected to do what people do in college. That's not true for kids at Cal State Fresno, but we leave them without the resources, the attention, the care that they get at those other places, and they're not nearly as likely to succeed."

Deeper Dive Into Daedalus

McPherson does not underestimate the heavy lift that would be ahead for a truly comprehensive effort to try to understand and ultimately improve the quality of learning in undergraduate education, a task laid bare by the enormous range of issues and challenges explored in the rest of the Daedalus edition.

Some of the essays by the illustrious group of researchers and learning experts included in the Daedalus collection examine what you might describe as "core" teaching and learning issues.

For instance, Harry Brighouse, the Mildred Fish Harnack Professor of Philosophy and Carol Dickson Bascom Professor of the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, compares newly hired professors at research universities to a new plumber who is a highly skilled baker but has had no training in plumbing. He then describes his own journey to becoming a better teacher, and the need for a stronger "infrastructure" (involving such things as instructional coaches, peer discussion, better-aligned rewards) to drive professional learning around better instruction.

And Carl Wieman of Stanford University explains the role of discipline-based education research, which strives to identify "a set of skills and knowledge that consistently achieve better learning outcomes than the traditional and still predominant teaching methods practiced by most faculty," field by academic field.

But many of the other essays in the collection examine related factors -- environmental, economic, cultural -- that can influence either the quality of teaching or students' ability to learn and reach their educational goals.

Jennifer M. Morton of the City University of New York, for instance, discusses the costs that many students from disadvantaged backgrounds suffer when their academic pursuits cut them off from their families and communities and the impact that can have on their progress. Daniel Greenstein of Pennsylvania's State System of Higher Education assesses how differences in funding levels for different sectors of higher education can influence their ability to deliver high-quality learning.

"It was an important objective for us to get that sort of larger context into the discussion," McPherson says, "without shortchanging the very real demand that people do their everyday instructional work better than they do now."

A ‘Wicked’ Problem

Randall Bass was not involved in the Commission on the Future of Undergraduate Education or the learning issue of Daedalus. But the vice provost for education and professor of English at Georgetown University has toiled in these fields for several decades, and as he sought to update a 1999 paper he wrote called "The Scholarship of Teaching: What's the Problem?" the Daedalus issue was on his reading list.

What he found helped convince him just how thorny the "problem" of improving teaching and learning remains 20 years later. His draft paper describes the "complicated web of tangled topics" covered by the Daedalus collection, including "the challenges of race and racism, democracy and civic education in building capacity in students through critical learning experiences; the false dichotomy of academic learning and occupational skills in educating a resilient workforce … and the durability and adaptability of a liberal arts education in the face of automation."

And "every one of these tangled topics opens out into adjacencies that are all equally as important to the future of human learning," Bass writes. "The very complexity and embedded nature of the challenge of improving college teaching in order to improve student learning is evidence of its wickedness as a problem."

The Daedalus issue confirmed Bass's emergent conclusion that it's time to view the problem of learning as a "grand challenge" that will take systemic, interdisciplinary, cross-institutional collaboration to try to solve.

"What the volume’s tangle of issues suggests is the growing sense in the discourse on improving higher education that no issue of learning is ever just about pedagogical practice, or technique, or the simple application of evidence-based approaches," Bass writes in the forthcoming essay. "Any serious address of improving teaching, deeply and long term, will require the kind of understanding and action that can only come from shifting how we take on the problem of learning as a problem -- and at every level of scale, from high-level learning research to educational development in a local institutional setting."

Why would that happen now if it hasn't happened before? Bass and McPherson both suggest that movement could come from some combination of external pressures (states and the federal government demanding more evidence that their investments in higher education are paying off, parents and students asking harder questions about whether college is "worth it") and the recognition within higher education that significant gaps in educational attainment by race and socioeconomic income are unacceptable at a time when the postsecondary student body is becoming less white and less wealthy.

We've already begun the shift from access alone to access and success, McPherson and Bass argue. But defining success as completing a credential, as we've largely done, is inadequate, they say; the next question really must be "completion of what?"

"As the inconsistent outcomes of today’s students suggest, getting people into college is not enough," McPherson and Baum write in the conclusion of their Daedalus introduction. "Nor is just getting them through their programs. We have to understand more about how students learn, about how to develop and support effective teaching at the college level, and about how to ensure that we are truly educating students, not just providing them with credentials."

And the first step, as Bass suggests, might just be admitting that there's a problem, and that it's a wicked one.

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