Many presidents, provosts, faculty members, counseling center professionals, student affairs professionals, and students believe that higher education is “challenged,” or that it has strayed from its fundamental mission. Everyone is aware of what could be done, and what changes should occur, but actually doing it—especially in the midst of the current economic climate, paired with the escalating complexity of technological advances and an ever-more diverse global community—is clearly a complex and difficult undertaking.
We can all agree: we must be clearer about what outcomes should be expected, and we must have reasonable means for determining that they are achieved. The college living and learning environments must be more integrated and should break down strongly assembled campus compartmentalization. Higher education must push students beyond just mastering content and skills, to achieving higher levels of personal, social, moral, and civic development as whole individuals. These various elements and outcomes should not be add-ons, but need to be inextricably connected.
The College Outcomes Project (COP), directed by Dr. Richard Hersh (senior consultant, Keeling & Associates; former president, Trinity and Hobart & William Smith Colleges) is an extension of the Bringing Theory to Practice Project (BTtoP) and has received support from both the S. Engelhard Center and from the Spencer Foundation in Chicago, to study and report on what a deeper analysis of learning outcomes might mean and what changes this analysis might suggest for higher education.
COP scholars, researchers, and practitioners began by focusing on the outcome of greater student well-being. What did that mean? What could provide evidence that experiences of higher education of particular sorts would encourage student well-being? Dr. Hersh’s colleague Dr. Corey Keyes defines this outcome as “flourishing” (the optimal level of emotional, psychological and social functioning) as opposed to “languishing.” Could and should a liberal education encourage such an outcome?
The project progressed by examining the student-learner as a developmental whole and studying how an identifiable range of outcomes followed from a truly transformative educational experience.
According to the COP, the ideal college/university environment should be centered around ‘transformational learning’—which essentially challenges the status quo of curriculum, pedagogy, institutional culture, and organizational structure to exhibit the following attributes: (a) developmental (challenging the student in ways that cause them to move toward new and more complex ways of understanding and being in the world); (b) holistic (encompassing multiple aspects of one’s evolving identity, deeply engaging the learner’s capacities for understanding, feeling, relating and acting); (c) integrative (active learning, involving ongoing experimentation); and (d) contextual (engaging in social contexts beyond the classroom, thereby understanding the interdependence of self and society).
The COP gathered and evaluated existing instruments designed to measure multiple outcomes (list of measures). However, the task of determining the best and most reliable means for assessing higher education’s multiple and interconnected outcomes remains. Even so, the Outcomes Project contribution has been a significant step in our greater understanding of what a liberal education can and should provide, and points in the direction of how to measure its success in doing so.
For the full report by Richard Hersh, and more information on the Outcomes Project, please see the Research page of the BTtoP Web site.