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Inside the Undergraduate Experience - Assessing Personal Growth

Tomorrow's Academy

Message Number: 
843

Students want to learn about the world, about themselves, about their friends, about knitting and kayaking, about whether God exists, and which fork to use at a formal dinner party. They want to learn how to talk to people unlike themselves and what it feels like to grow up on a farm. They correctly see college as a place that offer them the chance to learn about all these things and more, and to a large extent, they measure their own academic success by how many of these aspects of learning they acquired and experienced while they were undergraduates.

Folks:

The posting below looks at ways of assessing students' personal growth as undergraduates. It is from Chapter 3, Personal Growth: Conclusions and Implications Inside the Undergraduate Experience in The University of Washington's Study of Undergraduate Learning, by Catherine Hoffman Beyer, Gerald M. Gillmore, and Andrew T. Fisher of the University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Anker Publishing Company, Inc.,563 Main Street P.O. Box 249 Bolton, MA 01740-0249 USA www.ankerpub.com Copyright © 2007 by Anker Publishing Company, Inc. All rights Reserved., ISBN 978-1-933371-26-9.

Regards,

Rick Reis

reis@stanford.edu

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Tomorrow's Academia

 

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Assessing Personal Growth

 

In this section, we draw three conclusions from our findings and discuss their implications for assessment and for teaching and learning.

Students Enter and Exit College With Complex Ideas About Learning

We who work at the university define students' academic success as getting good grades and demonstrating in a variety of ways that they have mastered both the knowledge we are working to create and the academic skills we deem important. In contrast, undergraduates define academic success in multidimensional ways. Acquiring the disciplinary knowledge that is the province of the university is only one of them. Students want to learn about the world, about themselves, about their friends, about knitting and kayaking, about whether God exists, and which fork to use at a formal dinner party. They want to learn how to talk to people unlike themselves and what it feels like to grow up on a farm. They correctly see college as a place that offer them the chance to learn about all these things and more, and to a large extent, they measure their own academic success by how many of these aspects of learning they acquired and experienced while they were undergraduates.

Regarding teaching, colleges can and often do take advantage of students' multidimensional definitions of learning by providing them with opportunities inside the classroom to interact with peers, especially peers unlike themselves, and by asking them to work in groups. Eric Mazur's (1997) book on using peer groups in large-lecture classes, for example, offers a clear, easy-to-use process for fostering social and academic interaction in even the largest class. In addition, when colleges encourage students to participate in experiential learning opportunities connected with the classroom-service-learning, faculty research, and internship opportunities, for example-it helps students fulfill their own complex goals for learning.

Because of the complex and individualized paths students take as they move through college, assessing personal growth seems both tricky and value-laden. We believe that it is clear from our own research, and the research of many others, that students will grow and change in positive ways as they move through college, at least in part because the culture of university life fosters the kind of exploration that Arnett (2000) says characterizes emerging adulthood. Indeed, colleges and universities foster exploration by engaging students in interactions with peers around intellectual topics, working to build a diverse student body, providing opportunities for experiential learning, and offering a wide range of affordable study-abroad experiences.

Even though evidence for college students' personal growth is abundant, we believe it is essential for institutions to know what students hope to achieve when they come to college and whether and how they believe they have achieved those goals. Further, we believe that asking students to consider and assess their own growth is essential to their learning in the ways that matter to them and to us. Such self-assessment helps them know what they know and what they do not yet know, see where they have come from, identify the significant markers along the way, and review where they hope they are headed. Self-assessment is a work-place skill, as well as a life skill, and we need to do a better job of building self-assessment opportunities-large and small-into our academic environments.

Academic Difficulty Can Be Productive, But It Does Not Always Foster Growth

In watching students' move through the hammering, we began to wonder if that experience was beneficial to students' growth. Students sometimes reported feeling grateful for the experience in hindsight. Often, though painful enough to cause students to doubt their abilities for a time, the hammering experiences seemed to recalibrate students' thinking in positive ways, calling on them to work harder, to rethink their ideas about their futures, to acknowledge that old ways of being successful in school might not be effective at the university, to figure out what it was they did not yet know, and to identify resources that might lend them a hand.

However, it is important to acknowledge that sometimes the hammering drove students out of school. Sometimes it caused them to stop advancing their learning in certain areas, such as quantitative reasoning or writing. Sometimes the hammering made them angry or cynical about the educational processes. Sometimes it washed people out of majors in which they may have made creative contributions because their approaches differed from those of others who conformed more easily to conventional ways of thinking in those disciplines.

Regarding teaching, faculty need to remember that students are experiencing hardship and doubt brought on by faltering or failure. This process can be generative for students, so faculty should not avoid it or soften it. Perhaps, however, faculty can help students manage its effects, stepping into its aftermath to identify it as a "natural" part of the learning process and helping students understand what it may signify for them by talking about what it signified to previous students. This step may be particularly important in 100- and 200-level courses. Of course, faculty at all academic institutions do this all the time. For example, it is a common practice for faculty to require students who received low scores on early exams or papers to meet with them in office hours, and anticipating the hammering, many faculty members allow students to toss out one of their grades or write drafts of papers before they receive a grade.

In terms of assessment, we need to continue to track how students respond to academic failures, paying particular attention to how differing groups respond. Do women respond differently from men? Does a low grade on an exam mean something different to under-represented minority students than it does to students in the majority? How do students who are the first in their families to attend college interpret a low grade when their parents are not able to share stories about the low grades they received in college? Answers to these questions matter if we are working to identify ways to improve learning for all students.

Students Change Intellectually, Socially, and Personally While in College

Students experienced varying opportunities for personal growth within the structures of their majors, as subsequent chapters indicate. However, all of the students we studied exhibited personal growth. The teaching implications of the fact that college changes students are simply that those we instruct in our 400-level classes are different from those we taught at the 100-level. Often, the way we teach upper-level courses-allowing students greater intellectual freedom and requiring them to work independently of daily instruction-already acknowledges this reality. Our focus, then, needs to be on the earlier classes, when students are not yet acclimated to college and when they are juggling many goals. If we build opportunities for self-reflection, intellectual development, and social interaction into students' earliest learning opportunities, we will better prepare them to meet the demands ahead in their academic programs.

Endnotes

1) We did not include a control group of noncollege attendees in the study, although we would have liked to. Students' comments on challenges to and changes in their ideas, beliefs, and values appeared to be a natural consequence of the diversity found in the college environment. In contrast, it seems to us that young people who do not attend college need to seek out such diversity of thought and values. The types of challenge that students in college experienced daily without much effort may be more difficult for those not in college. Therefore, while students in and out of college may become more independent over these early adult years, we believe that the type of independence each group develops and the ease with which that occurs might differ.

2) The UW grades on a 4.0 system. Students can receive 0.0 or increments from 0.7 to 4.0. The latter is the highest grade possible.

3) Percentages here and elsewhere in this chapter may not add up to 100 because students often gave more than one response to open-ended questions.