When students hope that college will be “the best years of their lives,” we know that they are not just excited about their coursework. As the director of an honors program, the majority of the students I engage with every day are looking for college to offer transformational learning and personal growth, but they are looking for that to happen in a variety of situations beyond the bounds of the classroom. And while some of that learning will be done through the social scene of college life, it can and does also take place in more defined and sanctioned activities outside of classes.
Universities today clearly recognize that learning happens in internships, service experiences, through campus organizations and study abroad and undergraduate research. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) identifies many of these outside-of-class experiences as “high-impact practices,” modes of learning that have been shown to be particularly effective and which AAC&U recommends for all undergraduate students.
Yet as our institutions move to both a more rigorous culture of assessment of learning and a greater interest in learning beyond the classroom, we often end up with a disconnect between these two goals. How do we capture the learning and personal growth outside the classroom, and how does it relate to what happens inside the classroom? Moreover, how can the act of capturing learning in its various forms and situations enhance the learning itself?
Learning Outcomes that Span the Curriculum and Co-Curriculum
Honors programs are often microcosms of the larger university in which they are situated. My own program at Baldwin Wallace University in Ohio offers students a blend of academic and co-curricular opportunities: we have honors courses and academic requirements that must be fulfilled, but we also promote leadership and service experiences, study abroad, and independent research. Students can engage in many different substantive outside-of-class experiences as a way to fulfill Honors graduation requirements.
Our learning outcomes for students are an umbrella over all of these opportunities, and Taskstream helps us to uniformly collect and assess samples of work from honors classes and research projects and personal reflections on experiences like service trips, internships, and study abroad.
The honors learning outcomes fall into four categories, which are considered to be the “pillars” of our program: independent thinking, research, service, and leadership development. For instance, there are two outcomes in the independent thinking pillar:
1) Display open-mindedness through the ability to understand, analyze, and critique multiple perspectives, and
2) Demonstrate the development of one’s own voice and ability to interpret material or situations independently.
Students in an honors class that addresses these outcomes have a regular class assignment submitted to their Taskstream e-portfolio that requires them to demonstrate those skills and mentalities. Students who have completed an internship or study abroad experience submit a reflection, a blog, or even a short film that demonstrates how their experience provided an opportunity for growth in this area. Students who hope to join an honors’ leadership team—our peer mentors, for example—fill out an application and post-experience reflection in their e-portfolios that each include prompts related to our leadership learning outcome.
Assessment of Learning and Assessment as Learning
Collecting and assessing these samples of work and these reflections on experiences allows the program to ask questions about ourselves and how good of a job we are doing preparing our students with the skills and mentalities we hope to inculcate. For instance, we learned this summer that our seniors completing thesis projects struggled to “explain the relevance of the research to larger disciplinary and/or real-world issues” but excelled at “thinking critically and/or creatively about the subject.” Now we know we need to ask students to engage in the work of contextualizing their research more frequently and with more care before they get to the thesis project.
Perhaps an even more significant benefit of this assessment work has been in the effect it has on student awareness of their learning and development of skills in self-reflection. When students are asked regularly to frame their honors learning experiences in specific terms, –when they are asked to consider how their leadership or independent thinking skills are being developed, for instance, –they are engaging in a form of metacognition which is itself an activity of learning.
Metacognitive thinking—reflecting on one’s thinking, decision-making or learning—encourages students to become cognizant of and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses, their values, and their growth within a particular framework. For example, the reflection prompts related to the honors independent thinking outcomes ask students to “describe and reflect upon a specific time during your experience when you were challenged to form your own perspective and think independently.” More than just giving us something to assess, this type of reflection provides a venue for students to deepen their mindfulness of their own experiences and capabilities. Such an awareness increases a student’s ability to transfer and build upon those skills in new and different situations.
Life after graduation isn’t divided very neatly into places and times when we are learning and places and times when we are not. The “classroom” of my life is everywhere and always—learning happens within my job and my family and in conversations with my neighbors and community groups with which I’m involved. Within the collegiate setting, it remains important to be able to determine what a student learns in the more limited scope of a course or program. However, when we can demonstrate to students that the learning goals we have for them are applicable outside the classroom as well and when they are encouraged to develop the metacognitive thinking that will help them to transfer their learning across the different circumstances of their lives, we are helping to make “the best years of their lives” into a time that is as genuinely transformational as we all want it to be.
Baldwin Wallace University is a 4-year private, liberal arts college in Berea, Ohio. They are using Taskstream’s Learning Achievement Tools (LAT) and Accountability Management System (AMS) to manage institution and program assessment planning, general education assessment, to prepare for HLC accreditation, and to engage students in the assessment of learning outcomes across programs such as honors, education, health care, public policy, and the first year experience.