Why Retool?

How can we help students, whatever their initial motivation for coming to college, to recognize that their primary reason for being in college should be to learn?
By L. Lamar Nisly

A year ago, in our organizational management degree-completion program, I taught a humanities course, an ambitious romp through Western literature and history of the last five hundred years. As usual, I spent part of the first class session setting out the premise and approach of the course. I then requested that students reflect on ways that this course might pull them in new directions or ask them to integrate different ways of thinking. Students commented about drawing on various disciplines or needing to consider diverse ideas. I was struck by one student who described herself as “spiritual” but not very interested in organized religion. Yet, as she read the materials on the Protestant Reformation, our topic for the day, she suddenly found herself intrigued by Martin Luther’s questions. For reasons that she couldn’t quite explain, she found the material meaningful and engaging, as the reformers’ questions (if not all of their answers) resonated with her. To the chuckles of her classmates, she said the readings in history had become almost a page-turner for her.

Much as I’d like to, I can’t take any credit for the engagement this student had with the material; it all occurred before we had met for the first time. But her description of the passion that she experienced models the best of student learning. And I found myself riding a high for the next few days as I thought of what she said.

Despite our fondest wishes, we recognize that many of our students often do not experience this same passion for learning. Too often, students seem to approach college education as a hurdle to be overcome, classes as checklists to be marked off, degrees as a commodity to obtain rather than an opportunity for deeply satisfying, sometimes even exhilarating, experiences of learning.

During the 2013–14 academic year, Bluffton University took on the challenge of increasing student learning with an effort we’ve called Retooling for Student Learning and Engagement. As we know, there are some very sobering data about the learning—or lack of learning—taking place in colleges and universities across the nation. Rather than allow these realities to paralyze us, we are seeking to confront the challenges head-on through our retooling efforts.

Various national studies have pointed out that too many students in college are not learning as much as we would like them to. These concerns were crystallized in the 2011 book Academically Adrift by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Though their study has been challenged, overall their findings echo other research.

A comment from former Harvard University president Derek Bok sums up the basic concern: “Colleges and universities, for all the benefits they bring, accomplish far less for their students than they should. . . . [Many students finish their four years of college] without being able to write well enough to satisfy their employers . . . [or to] reason clearly or perform competently in analyzing complex, non-technical problems.” The authors of Academically Adrift starkly present this more general sense of unease: according to Arum and Roksa’s research, 45 percent of students by the end of their sophomore year do not show “statistically significant gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills.” That’s a big concern.

One response to criticisms of college education is to push for more “practical” kinds of education, more of an emphasis on job training. This approach is evident in directives from our government, as shown through the significant funding of community colleges with economic stimulus money. This sort of training is worthwhile, but it does not supplant the broad-based learning that takes place at liberal arts colleges such as Bluffton.

Ken Bain, in his 2012 book What the Best College Students Do, uses many examples of highly successful and creative people to develop his picture of how to be a successful college student. A central element involves drawing on ideas and creativity from multiple disciplines. He writes, “An important part of the creative process is the ability to recognize good ideas when you encounter them. . . . To grow on the ideas and creations of others, we must encounter them, and to do so, we must explore the great works of the mind found in the arts, sciences, mathematics, philosophies, and historical perspectives.” I’d argue that our national disappointments in spurring student learning are not evidence that we should give up the broad-based education that can lead to creative graduates with good reasoning abilities. Rather, we need to accept the critiques and determine appropriate steps for reaching our learning goals.

Today’s students arrive with different preparation and assumptions than many of us had when we went to college decades ago:

  • A broader range of students are going to college. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of full-time college students has risen from about 5.5 million in 1970 to about 11.5 million today, more than doubling, while the US population has increased by only about 50 percent. The increased access is welcome, but it does mean that some students are attending college who would not have done so in the past. Some of them may be less prepared for college work. Indeed, the authors of Academically Adrift found that “one-third of recent four-year college students took at least one remedial course in college.”
  • Students have different assumptions about their work. Students often do not have a realistic sense of the commitments they need to make to their studies in order to enter deeply into college work. Arum and Roksa write that many students “enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment.” Almost half of high school students in one study agreed with this statement: “Even if I do not work hard in high school, I can still make my future plans come true.” Students too often are not realistic about future plans, making them what some researchers call “drifting dreamers.”
    Students hear different messages about what is important. Some of our students come through high school with a misguided sense of how to direct their energies. Too often, students are not hearing that their learning is the most important part of their education. Students have received the not-so-subtle message that other emphases—following the rules, being engaged in extracurricular activities, participating in athletics, and so on—are what really matter.
    Students face new pressures. Today’s students face a variety of pressures that can distract them from learning. They are worried about finances, grades, getting a job—all legitimate concerns, but ones that may prevent them from focusing on learning.
    Patterns of education are dictated by testing. Many of our students’ educations have been driven by the demands of No Child Left Behind. Kenneth Bernstein, a retired high school teacher, has written in Academe that the need to prepare students for these tests has led many schools to remove subjects from the curriculum that are not directly tested and has encouraged teachers to take a narrowly focused approach that does not leave much space for student creativity and higher-level thinking. He tells professors, “We have not been able to prepare [students] for the kind of intellectual work that you have every right to expect of them.”
  • Information is easily accessible. We all have so much information available at our fingertips through Google searches that it’s easy to lose sight of the need to make sense of it. Some students have a “flat” view of information: anything they encounter on the Internet is equally valid. And, further, any question they could ask appears to have a straightforward answer that can be found through a Google search. Ken Bain tells about a neighbor boy who asked him, “Where do we go when we die?” Bain said, “I don’t know.” The boy responded, “Can you Google it?”

We hear from government sources and others that colleges and universities are not fulfilling their promise to students. We know that students come to us with a variety of barriers standing in the way of learning. We face the same New Testament question we pose to our seniors in our capstone course, Christian Values in a Global Community: “What then shall we do?”

Though these challenges are real, we are not helpless. With concerted effort and broad commitment, we can confront them head-on and spur our students to learn in ways they could never have imagined. We can commit to teaching and mentoring the students before us, not wishing for some illusory, “perfect” set of students. Together, we can seize this moment and revitalize our national academic culture, helping our students experience the passion and joy of deep engagement.

Faculty are regularly thinking about how learning is occurring in their classes and making incremental revisions to courses and curricula. Yet, given the national concerns about student learning and the changing preparation of our students, we need to ramp up our efforts.

Let me clarify. I’ve been describing so far what we academics can do. But deep learning will really occur only if our students decide for themselves that they care about their education. As Bain writes, the best college students

cultivated a sense of awe and excitement. . . . They were simply enthralled with the world, with learning, with the possibilities of reaching new levels of excellence, of finding new ways to understand or do. Their enthusiasm extended to not just one specialized area of study or profession but an array of subjects, often mixing the arts and science, Latin and medicine, history and comedy, or journalism and justice, to name a few. With almost childlike fascination, our highly creative best students tackled the unknown, rejecting the commonplace and pursuing their own works of the mind. They found the motivation to do so within themselves and took control of their own learning.

We cannot make our students learn. However, we do play a vitally important role in their learning. Our task and privilege as campus communities is to create a climate in which student learning can flourish, in which students become motivated to learn. We must urge and nurture and invite and exhort our students to tap their hitherto unknown passion for learning. Together, we need to create campuses in which the goal of student learning is always at the fore.

Some students come to us with a strong desire to learn, but others come with different motivations. They may not have had much occasion to focus on their academic identity, so they may appear on our campuses because we’re a convenient next step. Or perhaps they’re primarily drawn to college to extend their athletic career, or to experience camaraderie with others their age. These elements of college life are significant for many students, but all students should see that learning needs to be at the heart of their college education. How can we help students, whatever their initial motivation for coming to college, to recognize that their primary reason for being in college should be to learn?

Given the pressures on students, it can be easy for them—and us—to lose sight of the centrality of learning. We may forget that things we often talk about—grades, a degree—are simply markers indicating that learning has occurred. Assigning grades in courses and completing a college degree are societal shorthand signifying that a student has learned. How can all of us help students maintain their focus on learning rather than on the “markers” for learning?

Those “drifting dreamers” among the students have only a vague notion of what they’d like to be when they “grow up” and lack a clear sense of what it will take to get there. I remember a student who wanted to get into medical school but resisted taking any lab courses because he didn’t like science. If students have clear goals for their education, they are more likely to enter deeply into their learning, recognizing that their education matters for them. How can we help all of our students set worthy and realistic broad vocational goals that connect to their learning?

Our general education programs are important ways for encouraging students to experience the broad creativity of many disciplines. Yet I hear many students talking about “getting gen ed courses out of the way.” How can we nurture in our students the realization that their learning is enriched as it is fed from many disciplinary streams?

On many of our campuses, we have been concerned about student retention. If we have not made as much progress there as we would have hoped, perhaps this is because we have accepted some of the standard assumptions about retention. The authors of Academically Adrift note that colleges have often wrongly focused on retention: “The focus of the college experience is on learning, which in turn may facilitate persistence. In recent decades, many have turned this argument upside down. Policy makers and practitioners alike have focused on keeping students in college, assuming that if they stay they will learn. But the causal arrows do not seem to work in that direction. The simple act of staying enrolled does not ensure that students are learning much. If, on the other hand, students are learning and engaged, they will likely stay enrolled and graduate.” How can we make student learning the focus of our conversation and base our retention efforts around that focus?

Deep engagement in learning prepares students for lifelong learning, for making great contributions in a particular career and in a community’s life. As we help students delve passionately into their learning, we are spurring them toward doing much more than getting a grade in a particular course. We are encouraging them to adopt an attitude of curiosity and creativity that will make them leaders in whatever careers they embrace.

Reimagining our work and approaches will bring its challenges. As a character says in a story by Louisiana writer Tim Gautreaux, “Everything worth doing hurts like hell.” Despite the truth of that, we are also finding our shared efforts around student learning rewarding and energizing as we join together in this essential work.

L. Lamar Nisly is associate dean of academic affairs and professor of English at Bluffton University in Ohio. Along with many journal articles, he has written Wingless Chickens, Bayou Catholics, and Pilgrim Wayfarers: Constructions of Audience and Tone in O’Connor, Gautreaux, and Percy and Impossible to Say: Representing Religious Mystery in Fiction by Malamud, Percy, Ozick, and O’Connor. His e-mail address is [email protected].

*This essay is adapted from a presentation delivered at Bluffton University’s faculty/staff retreat on August 20, 2013. Bluffton University is a four-year liberal arts college affiliated with Mennonite Church USA. In preparation for the year’s work, Bluffton’s faculty read Ken Bain’s What the Best College Teachers Do over the summer.