George Kuh and his colleagues at Indiana University determined that some college experiences were highly correlated with successful degree completion; Kuh called them “high-impact practices.” These experiences included study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, and community-engaged learning.
These experiences are not only correlated with successful degree completion. Another scholar, L. Dee Fink, described them as examples of “significant learning,” learning that has a long-term impact on the students. Fink argued that learning is significant when students work to solve authentic problems that are meaningful for people outside of the classroom community. As an example of significant learning , a marketing professor could assign a class project for which one team develops a marketing plan for a non-profit organization in the community. The organization’s staff needs this marketing plan in a way that’s very different from how a professor interprets a marketing plan in the traditional grading process.
In the field of higher education, we like to count the things that are easy to count. For instance, we know how many students apply for admission, how many are accepted, how many enroll, how many are retained from one year, how many major in this or that, and how many graduate each year. We know how many credits they have accrued and what their grade point averages are.
But we don’t know much about the impact of our practices on students beyond what is documented on their transcripts.
I believe that study abroad, internships, undergraduate research, and community-engaged learning – all of them different kinds of significant learning – have an impact on students’ hearts.
Like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch, who, after trying to steal Christmas from the sweet Whos of Whoville, has a life-changing experience in which his heart grows three sizes in one day, the hearts of our students who engage in significant learning grow three sizes as well.
For the Grinch, the measurement is made visible to us by the x-ray frame in the cartoon; for our students, the best tools for measuring enhanced compassion, broadened perspectives, deeper commitment are the VALUE Rubrics from the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The VALUE Rubrics were developed by teams of faculty and scholars from a broad range of institutions: the rubrics for civic engagement, ethical reasoning, intercultural knowledge, teamwork, and integrative learning would be especially useful for such a project when faculty assign projects in which the desired outcomes can be demonstrated.
It is easy to ask students if they feel that their assignments have made them more compassionate, for example. But students know, and provide, the answer they are expected to give. The far better measure of student learning outcomes in these core values requires us to evaluate students’ learning directly by assessing actual student performance or student work product.
This, in turn, requires faculty collaboration on the design of the parameters for performance, paper, or project, and the ways in which a rubric, perhaps one of the VALUE Rubrics, would be applied. Imagine the potential for changes in the structure and design of higher education if the analysis of data from such an assessment project were to suggest, for example, that the vast majority of students participating in a community-engaged learning project in a course demonstrated statistically significant improvement in appreciation for different cultural perspectives or that the vast majority of students participating in undergraduate research demonstrated statistically significant improvement in collaboration skills.
The kinds of curricular design and assessment practices are ones for which few of us were prepared in graduate school. This means that institutions will need to provide professional development support for faculty. However, there may be no better way to align our time and budgets with institutional priorities.
Just because it’s more difficult to measure these outcomes doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing. This work is worth the effort. And who knows, by emphasizing our most cherished values throughout coursework with significant learning experiences, our own hearts may grow three sizes too.