Teaching Newsletter: Just Maybe, Student Activists Aren’t So Closed-Minded

November 16, 2017

Open or Shut?

Campus protests of controversial speakers generate headlines and hand-wringing about many things — especially the intellectual disposition of political activists. When activists’ protests of events end in injuries and cancellations, they are widely seen as examples of mob behavior, and proof of students’ intellectual fragility and insularity.

But the dynamics around learning and protest might be more nuanced. This is one conclusion drawn from this year’s newly released National Survey of Student Engagement, or Nessie. This year's report reflects survey data taken this spring about the undergraduate experience of freshmen and seniors at more than 630 baccalaureate institutions.

One student in eight was considered an activist. That meant they told Nessie they had been part of a group that submitted demands to their administration, or participated in or organized a protest, like a boycott, strike, sit-in, or walkout. These students were more likely than their less-active peers to be of traditional college age, live on or near campus — and be a member of a marginalized racial or sexual group. They were also more likely to plan to pursue an advanced degree and to have either a double major or major in the liberal arts.

According to their self-reported behavior, these students sought out differing opinions and viewpoints. Freshman activists interacted more often than non-activist peers with people from different racial and ethnic groups, economic backgrounds, religious beliefs, and political views. Both freshmen and seniors who were identified as activists said they were more likely to take courses that emphasized evaluating and synthesizing information, and to engage in reflective and integrative learning, like reassessing their views and considering others’ perspectives.

Rather than threatening the ideals of higher education, the authors of the Nessie report wrote, "student activism appears to signal reflection, critical thinking, and engagement
with ideas, combined with a vision for change."

We keep hearing about the censorious and closed-minded climate on campuses. But Nessie seems to describe something different — a group of often high-profile students who tend to be intellectually engaged. Which rings more true to you? Are students’ minds on your campus open or shut? Write to me at dan.berrett@chronicle.com and I may include your thoughts in a future newsletter.

Hope vs. Reality in Online Learning

Chief academic officers are bullish on digital learning but don’t think the investments their campuses have made in many technologies have been very effective, according to a new survey. The vast majority of CAOs believe digital learning resources can have a positive influence on the undergraduate academic experience and would also like to see their faculty use more technology in entry-level courses. But many of these CAOs are also sharply dissatisfied with the technologies their campuses are using, such as tools to support student success, according to the survey report Provosts, Pedagogy, and Digital Learning, produced by the Association of Chief Academic Officers and the Campus Computing Project.

The survey is one of several in recent months that present mixed views among academics toward teaching technology. Many professors believe it has pedagogical value but aren’t sure how to use it effectively. And it seems that provosts and other academic administrators, in this new survey, feel the same way.

A Library of Student Learning

It has been very difficult to evaluate learning in a way that helps students improve and tells faculty members how to adjust their teaching, while also showing institutions how they stack up against their peers. One effort that has attracted a lot of attention in recent years involves something called Value rubrics, which were developed by the Association of American Colleges & Universities and use authentic, home-grown student work to draw generalizable conclusions about learning. The association recently announced that it was starting the Value Institute in partnership with Indiana University’s Center for Postsecondary Research. According to the institute's website, participating institutions will be able to collect and upload samples of student work to a digital repository and have the work scored by certified faculty members for external validation.

Students Will Google First

How should professors guide their students to trustworthy information online? One option is only allowing them to refer to credible corners of the internet. Professors could require students to use “academic search engines and peer reviewed journals” in their assignments, wrote Sarah Summers, an assistant professor of English at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology, in response to our questions on the topic last week. But Ms. Summers has taken the opposite approach, she wrote. “Lately, I’m inclined to ask them to incorporate more, not fewer, popular sources into their research.”

Why? “Students — like many of us, if we’re honest — will Google first,” she writes. “It’s an almost instinctive reaction to needing information.”

When students seek information online outside of a classroom context, they are certain to find some that isn’t reliable. That means they need to develop the ability to determine which sources are solid. And where better to practice that skill than in their classes?

Ms. Summers has designed a collection of classroom activities to develop this skill, which could be applied to any discipline. One of them, for instance, has students annotate the bibliography of a research paper to indicate how reliable each source is, and how they know.

Sneak Preview

Where can professors turn for advice on improving their teaching? At a university in California, one answer is undergraduates. This fall, Beckie tagged along with a group of trained students as they collected feedback on what happens in the classroom — and presented it to professors. Find out more in her article on Chronicle.com next week.

Thanks for reading. If you have suggestions or ideas, please feel free to email us at dan.berrett@chronicle.combeth.mcmurtrie@chronicle.com, or beckie.supiano@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to sign up, you can do so here.

Please also note that there will be no newsletter next week. Happy Thanksgiving!

— Dan, Beth, and Beckie

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