Delicious AmbiguityAt the Augustana Board Retreat a couple of weeks ago, Allen Bertsche (Director of International Programs) and I hosted a discussion with members of the Board, administrators, and faculty about a fundamental shift that has occurred in higher education over the past several decades. While a college education used to be primarily about acquiring content knowledge, today the most important outcomes of a college education are a broad range of complex cognitive, psychosocial, and interpersonal skills and dispositions. These outcomes transcend a student's major choice and are applicable in every facet of life. In short, although content is still necessary, it is no longer sufficient. In recent years Augustana has identified outcomes like critical thinking, collaborative leadership, and information literacy as fundamental skills that every student should develop before graduation.
During our conversation at the Board Retreat, Kent Barnds (Vice President of Enrollment, Communications, and Planning) pointed out that, while some of us might grasp the ramifications of this shift, perspective students and their families are still firmly entrenched in the belief that content acquisition is the primary goal of a college education. In their minds, a college's value is directly related to the amount of content knowledge it can deliver to its students. As many of you know, when prospective students and families visit, they often ask about opportunities to obtain multiple majors while participating in a host of experiences. By comparison, they rarely ask about the exact process by which we develop critical thinking or cross-cultural skills in students.
I think it would do us some good to consider what the current calendar discussion looks like to those who believe that the cost of tuition primarily buys access to content knowledge. The students quoted in the most recent Observer about the 4-1-4 calendar discussion exemplify this perspective. Their rationale for keeping the trimester system is clearly about maximizing content acquisition - more total courses required for graduation equals more total content acquired, and shorter trimesters allow students to minimize the time spent acquiring content that they don't need, don't like, or don't want. With tuition and fees set well over $40,000 next year, it's not hard to see their concerns.
Now please don't misunderstand me - I am much more interested in what we do within the calendar we choose than whether we continue on trimesters or move to semesters. Nor am I suggesting that student opinions should or should not influence this discussion. But if we're trying to have a conversation about student learning - with or without students - and we don't share a common definition of the term, then we are likely doomed to talk right past each other and miss a real opportunity to meaningfully improve what we do regardless of whether or not the faculty votes to alter the calendar. On the other hand, if we can more clearly spell out for students, parents, (and ourselves) what we mean when we talk about "student learning" and why our focus on complex skills and outcomes is better suited to prepare students for life after graduation, not only might it temper the tensions that seem to be bubbling up among our students, it might also allow us to help them more intentionally calibrate the relationship between their current activities and obligations and their post-graduate aspirations.
So no matter where you sit on the semester/trimester debate, and no matter what you think about the shift in emphasis from content acquisition to the development of skills and outcomes, I would respectfully suggest that we need to better understand the presumptions that undergird each assertion in the context of the calendar discussion. In my humble opinion, as Desi used to say to Lucy, we still "got some ‘splainin' to do."
Make it a good day,