communicating for LEARNERS FALL # 1 2010 featured in this issue Student Learning Visionary Status Hot 5 Did You Know? Discussions/Workshops An Unshakable Focus on Student Learning Since the mid-1990s, many colleges and universities have undergone a “paradigm shift” from traditional methods of instruction, focusing on the teacher’s behavior and the teaching process, to a new learning paradigm that focuses on the learner’s behavior and the learning process. In an environment that is learner centered, it is important to focus on student success. Institutions across the country are in various stages of the transformation, and it can be illustrative to see what other universities are doing as they make the shift. One good source of information is George Kuh’s inspirational Student Success in College. Kuh is the Chancellor’s Professor of Higher Education at Indiana University. His research deals with assessing undergraduate student learning. He also is the director of the Center for Postsecondary Research and he founded the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), a widely used survey to measure what undergraduates gain from their collegiate experience. Student Success in College is based on a NSSE-sponsored study of 20 institutions that have higherthan-predicted rates of graduation and student engagement (as measured by NSSE). The book details the characteristics that are common to these high-performing institutions. Among these characteristics is one that seems to have particular power. Kuh calls it “an unshakable focus on student learning.” This focus is reflected in the learning environment through several complexes of behavior including, “ valuing undergraduate student learning, experimenting with engaging pedagogies . . . and making time for students.” 1 Some of the high-performing institutions Kuh discusses are small, liberal arts colleges such as Ursinus, Alverno, and Sweet Briar, where a focus on undergraduate learning might be taken for granted. But, he notes, there are also large research universities that demonstrate a significant commitment to undergraduate education. At the University of Kansas, for example, 80% of undergraduate classes have 30 or fewer students. Kansas is able to keep so many classes small by creating several “super size” classes, with as many as 400 students in each. These classes, however, do not look like a typical lecture section; they use active learning strategies and small group assignments to keep students engaged. At the University of Michigan, Miami University of Ohio, and George Mason University, there is sustained emphasis on faculty development, and faculty members are encouraged to spend significant time and effort to become more effective teachers of undergraduates. Because, as Kuh notes, “teaching does not necessarily lead to learning,” high-performing institutions encourage experimentation with engaging pedagogies, and have shifted from an emphasis on teaching to an emphasis on student learning. In learner-centered pedagogies, students are encouraged to practice what they learn—to solve problems, engage in projects with real-world consequences, work collaboratively with others, and do internships and co-ops. As Kuh himself says, “Maintaining an unwavering focus on student learning is labor-intensive.” At high-performing schools, students and faculty make time for each other, intentionally extending the classroom beyond its temporal and spatial borders. At Longwood University, for example, an administrator told Kuh, “If you were not in your office with the door open, people would ask if something was wrong with you.” A student noted that faculty members take a personal interest in students and he offered as proof an incident in which a faculty member sent him to fetch an absent classmate from his room. Faculty at both Alverno College and Sewanee spend a great deal of time ensuring that students get rich and deep feedback on their work. The Association for General and Liberal Studies (AGLS) has long been active in promoting a focus on student learning and student success. In 2009 it bestowed its “Exemplary Program Award on James Madison University for developing an assessment process that accurately measures students’ scientific learning. In 2007 AGLS honored Portland State for its focus on student learning in its capstone courses. Many institutions have made or are making the transition from a focus on instruction to a focus on student learning. Where do you think BGSU stands? Are we moving? Are we there yet? How far do we have to go? What can you contribute to an unshakable focus on student learning?