Sunday, December 11, 2016

Looking at Undergraduate Education through the Wrong End of the Binoculars

This piece considers several process reforms that make sense (at least to me) when looking at all of undergraduate education, which I try to do from time to time, though invariably from the perspective I've had from teaching my one class on the economics of organizations.  I have been doing that now for 5+ years.  While the total number of students isn't that large, well under 200, the patterns I've seen seem fairly well established.   That's what provides the motivations for these proposals.  Each of the suggestions are meant as an improvement on the status quo as I perceive it.

What follows are the suggestions, coupled with some rationale for each of them. 

1)  Move to a tripartite grading scheme to replace the single letter grade that is now awarded.

Discussion:  Education is antiquated in sticking with a single indicator of performance.  Going for a health checkup, the first thing they do is to take the vitals - blood pressure, temperature, oxygen in the blood.  Reporting the weather there similarly are multiple indicators given: temperature, humidity, wind speed.  It is true that aggregate indices are created so people can look at a single number (wind-chill factor, temperature-humidity index) but it is not so hard to look at the components without aggregation and for different people to make different judgements about how the components should be aggregated.

One component of the tripartite grading should be subject matter expertise, what the letter grade currently is supposed to report now.    The two other components would be first, something about the demonstrated ability for critical thinking/creativity/learning-to-learn and second something about the demonstrated ability to communicate well.

Students are more grade conscious than they've ever been.  Ask them about that.  They'll readily admit to the high importance of their grades.  The instructor trying to appeal to their intrinsic motivation for the subject matter is, frankly, getting clobbered by students being instrumental about their GPA.   Even if we don't like the behavior that produces, and as much as the let's-get-rid-of-grades-altogether mantra appeals to many instructors, getting rid of grades is not in the cards.  So we need some alternative that is more realistic.  The proposal here is to give other dimensions for students to game, dimensions we'd like them to improve in.  The hope is that in the process of trying to figure out how to perform well in these other dimensions, the bulk of the students actually learn something substantial.

The other aspects of this set of suggestions is meant to deliver on this in a way that is feasible and not overly burdensome to the instructor, though it might be possible to implement just this single suggestion without implementing the others.

2)  Move to shorter terms where students take fewer courses at any one time. 

Discussion:  Students are not very good at time management, no matter how well they are coached on this, but further, courses tend to have their high stakes obligations at around the same time.  So students cut class in one course because they have an exam in another.  Some of this may be that students don't allocate sufficient time to all their courses overall (we were the #1 party school in Princeton Review last year and partying takes a lot of time both in the doing and in the recovering from that).  A potential response to student partying is to up the average obligation per course, where much of this obligation is of the low stakes variety.  But because courses do compete with one another in this way, an individual course that raised its obligations would be perceived as unpopular by the students.   If students take just a couple of courses at a time (or only one at a time) then the courses can be more intensive, just for this reason and, of course, the wasteful competition between courses is eliminated.

3)  Move to a co-teaching model where each course has two instructors, one an expert in the discipline, the other a humanist who is expert in WAC (writing across the curriculum) methods. 

Discussion:  This and the next recommendation are apt to be the most controversial.  Surely there will be pushback against it.  Before addressing the pushback, let me make some arguments in favor of the suggestion.  In my class I teach in a WAC style, but the course doesn't satisfy an advanced composition general education requirement.  I do this simply because I think it is the right way to teach.  It is, admittedly, very labor intensive.  As a retiree, I can put in that time without it competing with other obligations.  For full time instructors,  to have such a labor intensive mode of instruction requires having more course staff. At a minimum, the suggestion should be thought of in that way.

The recommendation is in the spirit of Muhammad going to the mountain.  We know that student demand for humanities classes is in decline, yet faculty such as me, not humanists ourselves, retain the belief that the a liberal arts education is very important.  The suggestion then amounts to bundling what we hope are the essential elements of a liberal arts education within existing courses that students do demand.  In so doing, it is a way to credibly communicate that the university is serious about the other components in the tripartite grading scheme, beyond mere subject matter expertise.

I should note here that when I was an Associate Dean in the College of Business, I learned that in Accountancy courses there were two TAs - one for subject matter, the other for communication.  The Accounting department could afford this because they had the revenue flows to support the activity from their lucrative Masters Programs.  So, to a certain extent, the idea is to make that practice the norm elsewhere, but  do this with a full time instructor rather than a TA, so the course can be rethought  fully to integrate WAC methods into the approach.

One last consideration in favor, if the practice actually took off and became a commonplace, it would go some distance to address the excess supply issue with new PhDs in the humanities.  Now it may be that such work would not seem attractive, as these people wouldn't be driving their own bus.  They'd be playing a support role in teaching something else.  This is a glass half full or half empty proposition.  Nevertheless, it is work within a university setting.  That is nothing to sneeze at.

Now let me take on the pushback that is apt to arise.  First, the idea is unproven. So some experimentation must be done up front about trying to convert an ordinary approach to WAC format which is co-taught.   Such experiments won't simply spring up.  The would need to be incentivized.  The participants would have to understand that they will be held up under a microscope and that there work may very well be showcased afterward.   This is the same sort of thing that was done with teaching with technology in the mid 1990s.  There was grant funding (venture capital) for that then.  There needs to be some venture capital for it now.

Second, early adopters often do wonderful things.  Majority adopters produce much less interesting implementations, as a rule.  A significant reason for this is that the changes made by the majority adopters are minor, while drastic change is what is actually needed.  This can only happen if majority adopters are asked to perform well outside their comfort zones.    In other words, there has to be some substantial top down push for this to be a go.  Absent that, it will not work well.  So people at the top need to embrace this.  And they need to push, very hard.

Last, some significant assessment of the situation at present needs to precede this effort.  I'm writing this having done that sort of assessment in my own class and extrapolating enormously beyond that.  The changes are warranted, in my view, because the current situation is pretty grim and untenable long term.  (See my post on The business and ethical dilemmas of undergraduate education at public R1s.)  This then amounts to recommending sensible and significant reform from within before the situation fractures even more than it already has.  But that has to be a view held by many among the faculty and the campus administration.  We are not there yet.  To get there, a real assessment effort is necessary first and foremost.

A starting point might be a study of attendance in classes around week 5 and then again around week 10.  If my class is any indicator of what such a study would show, the results would be quite grim.  Beyond that, a substantial interview project with instructors about what they perceive their students to be actually learning (or not) should be undertaken.  I've offered up my thoughts about this in a post called When Students Don't Get It

I want to note here that such an assessment might be painful to conduct in that it could readily make overt some truths that have heretofore not gotten much of a public airing.  Thus, because the campus wants to publicly brag about its real and significant accomplishments to cast the campus in a good light publicly, there will be reasons not to undertake such an effort.  That inertia needs to be overcome.

Last year on campus there was a lecture series on Prioritizing Undergraduate Education.  These talks were all about visioning the experience.  This sort of thing seems to be fairly common nowadays.  For example, in the Chronicle last week there was a piece by Nicholas Lemann called The Case for  a New Kind of Core, which was also about what should be taught and yet not at all about how it should be taught.

The process issues are clearly not as engaging to faculty members when considering this sort of visioning exercise.  However, the process issues are likely quite important in implementation and determining whether an implementation will be successful.  Understanding that is why we should take them seriously.

4.  Increase the credit hours for those courses that continue to be offered.  Reduce the total number of courses required for graduation.  In particular, eliminate the 3 credit-hour course.  That type of course should be converted to between 4 and 6 credit hours and be taught in a suitably intensive matter to justify this reallocation.  

Discussion:  In light of recommendation #2, one might ask whether this recommendation is needed in addition.  Can one get the requisite intensity in instruction merely by scheduling only one or at most two courses at a time so that they meet more hours per week?

This recommendation is not just about making courses more intensive, though that is an important piece of it.  It is also about making the overall proposal self-financing.  (That is a long-term goal.  Near term, in the experimental phase, there will be additional costs to try out the approach.)   The reader will note that each of 1 - 3 comes with some incremental cost.  Savings must be produced elsewhere to pay for that.  Those savings will come from reducing the total number of course offerings.  The equation to keep in mind is total expenditure equals expenditure per course times the number of courses offered.  We will be increasing expenditure per course.  To get balance there needs to be fewer courses offered.

I am deliberately making this simplistic here, because I don't want to dwell on how the savings are obtained in this post.  While readers may think I'm trying to pull a fast one with that, surely they will agree the 1 - 3 in themselves would make for cost adds.  (Among the proposals, 2 is potentially cost neutral long term, but would clearly require substantial adjustment costs near term.)  So rather than dwell on this I will simply pose this question to reader, what would you do to make such a proposal self-financing?

Here I want to make some other observations.  In spring 2007 I visited the Smeal School of Business at Penn State for a meeting of Technologists for Business Schools.  The meeting was of intense interest to me as BIF was yet to deploy and Smeal had solved many issues that we would have to solve as well, particularly how to schedule as many classes in the College of Business as we could to be held in BIF.   One thing I learned is that they procured scheduling software for this purpose.  So I went about initiating something similar for us.

One part of that exercise, not something you would normally do but it appealed to my sensibilities at the time, I took all the College classes listed in the Timetable and put them into an Excel spreadsheet on a classroom by classroom basis, so I could eyeball room utilization.  Manual data entry of this sort can be quite tedious, but sometimes it reveals interesting information.   For a little while I became the college expert on how we scheduled classes, which served me well at the meetings of department heads and associate deans.  Beyond that something else emerged that I wasn't expecting at all.

Courses in Accounting were always scheduled in 2-hour blocks that could be put into a grid quite nicely, always starting on the hour, and mainly starting at 8, 10, 12, etc.  Courses in BA and in Finance, in contrast, were mainly scheduled in 90 minute chunks that could start on the hour or on the half hour and once in a while the scheduling was in 3 hour chunks, meaning the class met only once a week.  Now, in case this isn't obvious, the upshot is that the undergraduate Accounting courses were all 4 credit hours while the undergraduate BA and Finance classes were all 3 credit hours.  Ask yourself why that would be.  (Incidentally, while the College of Business is accredited, Accounting has its own accrediting in addition.)   This was an interesting take away from the data entry exercise.

We know the seat-time model has been under attack for quite a while.   MIT, which I attended as a freshman and first-semester sophomore (1972-73) before transferring to Cornell, had an interesting approach that rated out of class time as well as in class time, where the total hours rating divided by 3 would give the credit hours.  I had a couple of courses that were 5-0-7, a few that were 4-0-8, and some hard math classes that were 3-0-9.  The first number is the in class time; the second number is the lab time; and the third number is the expected out of class time.  The required humanities/social science class was 3-0-6.  That communicated volumes!

The MIT schema does signify an expectation about outside-of-class coursework in a way that the simple credit-hours model does not.  I am no longer current on this sort of thing, but when the National Survey of Student Engagement first became well known I became familiar with George Kuh's well chosen phrase The Disengagement Compact (found here, which for a U of I person at home requires VPN to access the full piece).  Much of what I'm arguing is that the Disengagement Compact is alive and well on campus and it is time to address it squarely and see if we can put it to bed.

Credit-hour ratings for courses may have had a good rationale near when they were originally determined, but that gets lost along the way and what remains is simply lock-in because that's how things were done in the past.   When things are going well a rule of thumb is to not upset the apple cart.  Changing the credit-hours rating for a course is a rather drastic thing to do.  Making drastic change would be an admission that the current way of doing things is not working well at all.

It would also be quite difficult to implement.  The various campus committees, both from the Faculty Senate and from the Provost's Office, would need to buy in.  So would the accrediting agencies.  All of this would take a good deal of time.  Let's not be under any illusion that one can snap one's fingers and make changes like this. 

But difficult is not the same as impossible.  And what I'm try to do with this piece is only to sketch those process changes that would make sense if you wanted to take on the Disengagement Compact squarely and embrace a liberal education while doing so.  I encourage others to try the same sort of exercise with their own design and see what they come up with.  We can then compare notes.  Only then can the suggestions being offered here be evaluated.  If there are more appealing alternatives, I would be for those.  At present, I don't see those.

5.  Carve out some resources to up the advising function so some non-course personnel tracks student engagement in the courses the student is taking and such monitoring is tied to some incentive that the student will pay attention to.  

Discussion:  First I want to note that the DIA does this for varsity athletes and Minority Student Affairs also does this for some students.  Also, I don't teach freshman but I believe we do something of this sort for them as well (reporting mid semester grades) but I don't know if that is attached to advising services that will go into action when poor performance is reported.   However, I can say that the advising function and the teaching function are not integrated well at all and many students I see who could use the external monitoring are not getting it.  So the proposal is to make it universal and sufficiently functional that it might have an impact on student behavior.

One of the issues that needs to be worked through is that instructors see how students do in low stakes settings - coming to class, doing the homework, etc., but as a fraction of the overall grade that doesn't amount to much.  It would be good to be pro-active about these things to see if students who start to slough off can return to good work habits soon thereafter and to get other students who start off on the wrong foot to do a better job.

An individual instructor has limited tools for managing these issues and a student intent on slacking off can often meet the letter of the instructor's requirements without addressing the spirit of them at all.  While many students may slack off to some degree, the outliers are the ones who should get the attention of the advisers, who would know better whether this is part of a larger pattern with the student or not.

Second, while the campus may not want to explicitly articulate a policy position regarding the school's reputation as a party school, it may very well want an implicit understanding that instructors have in that regard.  Just to illustrate, my class started at 11 AM this semester and that is the time it has been meeting the last several years.  Students have told me that their classmates skip class (I don't require attendance as part of the grade) perhaps because they are sleeping in.  I have two sons, both recent grads of the U of I, so I am well aware of the nocturnal patterns of students who are around 21 years of age. But I associate the sleeping in phenomenon with the weekend, where kids catch up on their lost sleep from Monday through Friday.  What we seem to have, judged by the attendance patterns in my class this semester, is encroachment of the weekend onto the work week.  (I didn't have attendance issues in the class in 2012-14 but have had them the last couple of years.  The course is offered in the fall.  In spring 2012, I taught the course for the first time and did have attendance issues, but I attributed that to senioritis for spring offerings.)  An individual instructor has a hard time to draw the line on this issue.  But the campus might have an idea about what it wants to see.  The people doing the advising could communicate that to the students.

Regarding incentive, this is clearly tricky because students will game the system.  So I don't have a good answer here, but I do think think that instructors identifying the outliers and then passing the baton is better than what we have now, which is that many of those outliers fall through the cracks, possibly failing the course, where that outcome is not desired by them nor by the institution.   Others might get through but receive poor grades and then get labeled as under achievers.  That is also not desired.

Last, causality for poor performance, procrastination, lack of engagement, etc. may have psychological roots and/or may be tied to inadequate prior preparation.  In other words, the student needs confidence building and/or academic remediation of some sort.  I believe that both DIA and Minority Student Affairs have tutoring services to address these issues, but I am not aware of any general sort of tutoring service for students that isn't tied into a specific class.  Implementing something of that sort at scale might be a challenge.  But it is the sort of process recommendation one arrives at when trying to explain why observed disengagement is so great and then asking about possible remedies to the problem.

* * * * *

Let me wrap up.  I am quite sure that I am not overstating the issues as I see them, but it very well may be that what I see is not what is going on in STEM disciplines nor even in the College of Business.  (Many if not most Econ students are Business student wannabes.)  Do note, however, there are other causal factors that matter apart from area of study.  Sherry Turkle, for example, talks about the evils of multiprocessing.  This other piece on The University of China at Illinois makes clear that international students from East Asia are culturally quite different from students who grew up in Illinois.  Culture matters too.  My recommendations were offered up as a one-size-fits-all solution.  I can see that one criticism is that such a solution is inappropriate.  Good.  Ask yourself, can you fit appropriate solutions for the right audience only?  That seems like the right sort of question on which to conclude this piece. 

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