Can Learning Be Improved When Budgets Are in the Red?

Michael Morgenstern for The Chronicle

April 25, 2010

A year ago, President Obama set an ambitious goal for American higher education. Alarmed by statistics from the Organization for Economic Development and Cooperation that showed the United States is falling behind other developed countries in that regard, he announced that "by 2020, America will once again have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world." That's a commendable goal, but for it to amount to anything, the quality of student engagement and learning has to improve as well. Can that be done at a time when college budgets are under strain on many fronts?

The current state of student learning in American colleges and universities leaves much to be desired. To be sure, the evidence about whether students are learning is fragmentary, imperfect, and discouraging. Most distressing are the results of the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey and the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy, which show that average literacy levels among adults with bachelor's degrees have declined over time. That's on top of the fact that the overall level is low: On average, four-year college graduates have only an "intermediate" level of literacy, meaning that they are capable of doing only "moderately challenging literacy activities." Further, data collected from the National Survey of America's College Students—which used the literacy survey—show that "20 percent of U.S. college students completing four-year degrees—and 30 percent of students earning two-year degrees—have only basic quantitative literacy skills, meaning they are unable to estimate if their car has enough gasoline to get to the next gas station or calculate the total cost of ordering office supplies."

Recent findings reinforce such concerns. For example, the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, conducted at Wabash College, has collected data on the first-year experiences of students from 19 colleges and universities. It has found that, in many respects, students showed very modest growth on a range of capacities, or worse, actually regressed. Perhaps the most troubling finding in the study was that indicators of students' academic motivation showed a marked decline over their first year in college.

Despite lots of imaginative efforts and hard work, the needle—that is, student learning as it has been assessed and measured—is stuck, and stuck at a dangerously low level. The ripple effects of that simple but distressing fact reach far, affecting public confidence in higher education, the debate about whether students are "getting their money's worth," demands for governmental intervention, and fears about America's ability to hold its own in the fiercely competitive global marketplace. That doesn't even take into account concerns about students' appreciation of literature, history, science, the arts, and other areas, as well as their role as citizens in a beleaguered democracy.

Such discouraging assessments of American higher education come at a time when operating budgets are being cut, faculty and staff members are being let go, and whole programs—particularly in the humanities—are being dropped. It's hard to imagine that student learning and engagement can be improved when red ink is flowing on many campuses. Yet the work that the Teagle Foundation has encouraged over the past few years gives hope that it can, in fact, be done. Our support of collaborative efforts and innovative programs that focus on improving undergraduate education has helped us identify some relatively inexpensive steps that can improve students' cognitive and personal capacities. That is important, as we can't wait for the next boom or bubble to make improvements in student learning.

Colleges must decide right now what they can do to bring learning to a much higher level. One way to start is to ask the following 10 questions and then use the answers to build a coherent and systematic strategy for educational improvement. The questions may not all apply to every campus, but answering them can open up a fresh and much-needed dialogue about student learning.

1. Are you asking your students to reach robust, long-lasting goals? Many institutions no longer settle for "exposing" their students to certain content areas and developing mastery of a specific field. Rather, the focus has moved to the development of cognitive and personal capacities like analytical reasoning, critical thinking, effective written and oral expression, understanding of cultural difference, and civic engagement. High expectations of that sort are a prerequisite to high achievement.

2. Do all students (and all faculty members, for that matter) understand what those expectations are and why they are important? Are they clearly communicated during orientation for first-year students and new faculty members? Are they prominent on the institution's Web site, built into the advising system, and clearly and forcefully articulated at every level, from top academic leadership to the instructors in individual courses?

3. Do the requirements of departments and courses reflect those goals? If, for example, one of the goals is clarity and cogency of written expression, are students being asked to write a sufficient number of papers of adequate length? Data from the National Survey of Student Engagement indicate that few first-year students and only a minority of seniors write even a single paper of more than 20 pages, and some students write no papers at all. How will they improve as writers unless they write more and receive prompt and helpful critiques? That need not result in significantly more work for faculty members, if they develop clear rubrics reflecting their expectations and communicate them to students.

4. Are teaching techniques conducive to active, in-depth learning? It is important for students' learning and success to encourage them to revise papers, seek feedback on academic work, and evaluate the quality and reliability of the information they receive. There's usually room for improvement. The 2008 faculty survey conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles indicates that less than three-quarters of faculty members frequently encourage their students to develop such habits of mind. It doesn't take more time to teach in this way; it just means using time more effectively.

5. Are faculty members using the principles of metacognition in their classrooms? Professors who take a few minutes in class to encourage students to reflect on their own studying and learning practices report that the quality of engagement and learning soon increases. Just ask the faculty and graduate students in the Teagle Collegia on Student Learning. Participants determine how best to incorporate metacognition, as well as other concepts from cognitive science and psychology research, into teaching practices.

6. Are effective educational methods and approaches in place and up to scale on your campus? A recent study by the Association of American Colleges and Universities identified 10 "high-impact practices" that have positive effects on student learning and on retention and graduation rates:

  • First-year seminars
  • Common intellectual experiences
  • Learning communities
  • Writing-intensive courses
  • Collaborative assignments and projects
  • Undergraduate research
  • Diversity/global learning
  • Service learning
  • Internships
  • Capstone courses and projects

By now most institutions have such programs, but relatively few students take advantage of them. Encouraging more students to do so can increase learning, achieve economies of scale, and improve graduation rates.

7. Do some of those practices seem too expensive right now, or require institutional buy-in that cannot at the moment be secured? Educational improvement can't be done on the cheap, but small changes can make a big difference. When a conversation with a student turns from the weather or baseball to choosing a major, it may become one of those "high-quality interactions between professors and students outside of class" known to increase academic engagement. Prompt feedback on written work sends the message that the improvement of the student's work is being taken seriously. Clear and organized teaching methods, syllabi that state the desired learning outcomes for a course, and assignments that are explicitly linked to those goals can all make a difference right now.

8. What is really working, and what isn't? Your campus almost certainly has the data needed to zoom in on specific problems and identify areas that can be improved, but the necessary data sometimes never make it from the office of institutional research or the registrar to the appropriate faculty committees. Regular and systematic use of available data in program reviews is one way to break the logjam.

9. Do you need to pay expensive consultants to advise you on how to improve student learning? The answer to that question is a definite "no." Sure, it helps to have an outside perspective, but volunteers provided by the Teagle Assessment Scholars program, at Wabash College, offer at a low cost valuable expertise focused on faculty needs and interests (

10. Are you being systematic about improving student learning? Or is your institution making changes on the basis of bright ideas or inspired hunches that are not rigorously evaluated or improved the next time around? Collecting evidence on learning and using it to inform next steps avoids wasted effort.

It will take more than these 10 questions to bring the country closer to reaching President Obama's ambitious goal of regaining America's place among the countries with the largest percentage of college graduates. Answering them, however, is a start. At a time when budgets are stretched, they can help focus colleges and universities on the essential work of increasing graduation rates, and, even more important, of improving the quality of student learning and engagement.

W. Robert Connor is senior adviser to the president of the Teagle Foundation and formerly the foundation's president. Cheryl Ching is a program officer at the foundation.