Report: Uncertainty high among faculty on what shapes student learning and success

Researchers highlight four areas that can help bridge the divide between administrators and other stakeholders.

Are stakeholders on your campus in alignment on learning outcomes and equity for students? Senior administrators might believe targets are well-defined, but a new report shows divide in what faculty see as measures of success and how well students are grasping those ideals.

In its study On the Same Page? Administrator and Faculty Views on What Shapes College Learning and Student Success, the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) notes uncertainty on the expectations from instructors and also the implications of different views on mindsets, aptitudes, and dispositions.

More than 700 higher education professionals took part in the survey, which sought to define how cohesive stakeholders were in outlining, among other things, the value of degrees. Nearly 85% of them say they are committed to common learning outcomes, but even private and public institutions often have different standards.

“The need for better and broader communication is at the heart of so many of the findings,” said Ashley Finley, AAC&U Vice President of Research and co-author. “Overall, this report points to an urgency for getting those conversations going sooner rather than later and for making them inclusive of multiple stakeholders.”

That is because although most institutions have intended learning outcomes, only 28% of those polled believe that students understand what those are. That is down 17% from polling done just six years ago.

So what are the expectations? From the survey, the top learning outcomes expected of students were written communication at No. 1 at 90%, followed by critical thinking (87%), oral communication (78%), quantitative reasoning (77%) and intercultural competence (62%). Four that posted surprising low figures were information literacy (56%), application in real-world settings (44%), civic skills (34%) and digital literacy (29%), which all have implications for the future of work and learning. There were significant divides among some of those overall numbers between administrators and faculty. For example, nearly 20% fewer faculty believe oral communication is addressed, and there were 14% gaps on quantitative reasoning and problem-solving between them.

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From a separate poll, employers listed two of the same important outcomes in their top five – oral communication and critical thinking – although with far less fervor than higher ed stakeholders. Three that were ranked higher included the ability to work in teams, application to real world settings and digital literacy.

Three other key factors

In addition to learning outcomes, the AAC&U asked respondents about the other measures of student success –mindsets, aptitudes and dispositions. Nearly 90% indicated a passion for lifelong learning. More than 60% noted persistence, agency and resilience. And more than 50% noted empathy, self-awareness, work ethic and motivation. In addition to work ethic and agency, employers want to see self-confidence.

“The importance campus stakeholders place on [the three other measures] is good news for two reasons. One, it encourages colleges and universities to be more explicit about these outcomes as priorities for student learning and development. And two, it further aligns college learning with what employers say matters for workplace success,” Finney and co-author Kate Drezek McConnell noted in the report. “Though campus stakeholders and employers differ slightly on which mindsets, aptitudes, and dispositions are most important, emotional Intelligence was ranked lowest by both.”

One notable finding is the tremendous uncertainty from all stakeholders over whether equity goals are being set at their institutions. More than a third believe they’ve set targets for graduation and retention, but around half are unsure on these other categories, with just slight percentages believing they do have these as equity goals:

  • Participation in high-impact practices (11%)
  • Credit/course completion benchmarks (15%)
  • Achievement around student learning outcomes (12%)
  • Enrollment in developmental education courses (6%)
  • Completion of development education courses (6%)

Within the report, there is a big section on equity, including STEM outcomes, and also a section on innovations in general education, where there is still more division and uncertainty from stakeholders. Finney and the AAC&U team recommend that campus stakeholders ensure they are all on the same page by addressing these four areas:

  1. “Elevating the importance of civic skills and global learning
  2. Focusing curricula more intentionally on the development of student mindsets, aptitudes, and dispositions
  3. Establishing equity goals
  4. Increasing transparency for all stakeholders, not just students”
Chris Burt
Chris Burt
Chris is a reporter and associate editor for University Business and District Administration magazines, covering the entirety of higher education and K-12 schools. Prior to coming to LRP, Chris had a distinguished career as a multifaceted editor, designer and reporter for some of the top newspapers and media outlets in the country, including the Palm Beach Post, Sun-Sentinel, Albany Times-Union and The Boston Globe. He is a graduate of Northeastern University.

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