Bates: A Curriculum for ‘Purposeful Work’

Quartz: Clayton Spencer “has been head of Bates, a small college in Lewiston, Maine, founded by abolitionists, since 2012. Since she arrived, she’s made it a priority to embed the idea of ‘purposeful work’—broadly defined as work that both has personal meaning and societal relevance—into as many aspects of college life as possible. While she is romantic about the liberal arts mandate, she understands the importance of finding practical applications for what students learn in school.”

“During a five-week ‘short term’ in May, Bates offers practitioner-taught courses: One digital marketing course was taught by a digital marketing consultant, while a dancer educated students on the business concerns involved in pursuing a career in the arts. Students can also shadow workers in various fields for a day (many of them Bates alumni) and funding from the school is available for internships in fields that don’t pay, such as non-profits and the arts. Importantly, purposeful work seeks to give students who don’t have networks the skills and the experience to build them.”

Spencer comments: “The source of personal happiness and fulfillment has to be around meaning, and not the psychology of happiness. You find meaning by thinking and acting in the world in a way that aligns with your talents and interests and brings you joy, and makes a social contribution of some kind.”

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Ivy League: What Are The Most Popular Majors?

Business Insider: “So what do undergraduates at the eight Ivy League schools like to study? Turns out, it’s surprisingly similar no matter which school they attend. At six of the eight schools, economics is the most popular major among students who graduated in 2016. The most popular major at the two outliers, Cornell University and the University of Pennsylvania, were engineering and finance, respectively.”

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Grade Inflation: Getting ‘A’s is Easier

USA Today: “There’s a pretty clear trend: At four-year schools, awarding of A’s has been going up five to six percentage points per decade, and grade point averages at four-year colleges are also rising at the rate of 0.1 points per decade … And grade inflation is more prevalent at private institutions than at public ones … the mean GPA for both private and public schools in the 1930s was 2.3, or a C+. That number for both types of institutions increased at the same rate until recently – today, the average GPA at private colleges is 3.3 (a B+), while at public universities it’s 3.0 (a B).”

“Although the meaning behind an A still varies at different schools … receiving high marks could mean anything from ‘you showed up for class and didn’t insult the professor’ to ‘you’re a good to excellent student.’ According to a 2013 study conducted by the University of North Texas’s Department of Economics, class size may be one factor in the grade inflation increase, and departments with smaller student-faculty ratios have a greater tendency to exaggerate grades. The type of degree program could also influence the extent to which professors overstate students’ grades: inflation was more prevalent among Ph.D. departments than it was among lower-level programs, according to the study.”

“Student evaluations could also incentivize instructors to issue higher grades than they deserve in an effort to ‘buy’ higher evaluation scores.”

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St. John’s College: ‘Old School’ is New Again

Quartz: “Consider St. John’s College, America’s third-oldest institution of higher education, founded in 1696. With fewer than 700 students between two campuses in Annapolis and Santa Fe, St. John’s is a bit under the radar. But it’s emerged as one of the most distinctive colleges in the country by maintaining a strict focus on the classics of the Western canon … a big part of that distinction is due to a strict adherence to its own curated curriculum and teaching methods, know simply as “the Program” implemented back in 1937.”

“Four years of literature, language, philosophy, political science and economy, and math. Three years of laboratory science, and two of music. That’s it. No contemporary social studies. No accounting. No computer classes. No distinct majors or minors … Another unique feature of St. John’s is a resistance to placing texts in a political, social or historic context for discussion. Context is viewed as ideology, something that St. John’s believes distorts true education and the ability to form one’s own opinion. This is crucial to the school’s philosophy; by freeing texts from context, St. John’s claims it frees students’ minds to ponder the multiple possibilities and meanings that are actually in the text.”

“Clearly St. John’s is not for everyone. First, you need to be a voracious reader to cover the Program texts at a brisk pace. You also need the capacity for and love of writing because St. John’s requires a lot of it. It helps to feel comfortable speaking in public, since so much of St. John’s learning occurs out loud around a table with your classmates and tutors … In recent years, Forbes ranked the Santa Fe campus as the “Most Rigorous” in the US (with Annapolis ranked eighth, odd given the same Program), way ahead of the big Ivies like Harvard (17th), Princeton (20th), Yale (23rd), and Stanford (25th). The school’s tutors are often cited as among the best teachers in the country.”

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Elite Colleges Stop Giving AP Credits

The Wall Street Journal: “Admissions officers from some elite colleges say they still expect to see high-school transcripts loaded with AP courses, but don’t give much more than a pat on the back—and possibly an offer of admission—for the hard work. Starting in 2014, Dartmouth College stopped giving AP credit toward graduation but allowed students with high AP scores to pass into more advanced courses … Next month, faculty at Duke University’s Trinity College of Arts and Sciences will vote on a revamp of the undergraduate curriculum, including reconsidering whether to award academic credit for high AP scores.”

“At the University of Pennsylvania, French, physics and a few other departments award credit or advanced standing based on a student’s AP scores. But other departments, including chemistry and biology, found that students who used AP scores to skip introductory courses fared worse in upper-division classes than those who took the full sequence at Penn because they weren’t as well-prepared. The departments unveiled new credit guidelines for the current academic year.”

Some colleges also “say that too many exemptions from classes can take away from a shared undergraduate experience with other students.”

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Boston College Revamps Remedial Courses

The Washington Post: “When students are unprepared for the rigors of college, schools often require them to take courses to catch up to their classmates. Those remediation courses, though, do not count toward a degree and may delay students from graduating on time, costing them money in the long run.”

“Boston College is taking a different approach to help students with weak academic records by using a set of learning strategies that require no more than one three-credit class. And new research shows the model is paying off as the vast majority of students are graduating in four years, results that administrators say have national implications for improving college completion.”

“The course teaches techniques for critical thinking, reading, note-taking and test preparation. The idea is to move away from rote memorization toward inquiry-based learning, encouraging students to develop an ongoing dialogue with new information … What’s striking about the results is the population of students in the Learning Theory class had SAT scores as low as 500 (out of a possible 1600), not the typical profile of students admitted to Boston College.”

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Hillsdale: A College for Conservatives

The New York Times: “Hillsdale, a private college of 1,400 students in southern Michigan that describes itself as ‘nonsectarian Christian’ and dedicated to ‘civil and religious liberty,’ is scarcely known in many circles. But among erudite conservatives — think progeny of William F. Buckley Jr. — it is considered a hidden gem.”

“What they admire is the college’s concentration on the Western philosophical and literary canon (sometimes disparaged as the Great Books of dead white men) and its reverent treatment of the American founding documents as the political culmination of that tradition — a tradition that scholars at Hillsdale say has been desecrated by a century of governmental overreach.”

“Hillsdale attracts students from across the country … and they don’t wind up there by accident. Many said their parents received Hillsdale’s newsletter, Imprimis, featuring speeches by conservative thinkers … They were also attracted by the moderate cost. Hillsdale is well financed with private donations, and college officials said that 95 percent of students this year received grants averaging $17,206, to offset the $35,722 for tuition, room and board.”

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‘Big Data’ Can Predict College Success

The New York Times: “Georgia State is one of a growing number of colleges and universities using what is known as predictive analytics to spot students in danger of dropping out. Crunching hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of student academic and personal records, past and present, they are coming up with courses that signal a need for intervention.”

“At the University of Arizona, a high grade in English comp proved to be crucial to graduation. Only 41 percent of students who got a C in freshman writing ended up with a degree, compared with 61 percent of the B students and 72 percent of A students … At Middle Tennessee State University, History 2020, an American history course required for most students, has been a powerful predictor. The most consistent feature for those who did not graduate was that they received a D in it.”

“Such insight may revolutionize the way student advising works … The analytics programs know the paths that successful students have followed. When a student veers off that path, like getting a low grade in a predictor course or taking a course out of sequence, advisers get an alert, a signal to reach out to the student and offer suggestions.”

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Keys to a Good College Experience

Quartz: “Analyzing data from a study of more than two dozen institutions, sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa conclude that many students ‘enter college with attitudes, norms, values, and behaviors that are often at odds with academic commitment.’ And many universities reinforce these beliefs by building lavish amenities and marketing themselves as something akin to a resort with a curriculum.”

“Real learning—that is, learning that makes a significant and lasting change in what a person knows or can do—emerges from what the student, not the professor, does … Instead, meaningful learning emerges from a proactive conception of knowledge, where the student’s goal is to experiment with new and unexpected ways of using what he or she is learning in different settings. This requires students to see themselves as the central actors in the drama of learning.”

“The relationships students form in college also have a profound influence on their experiences, shaping not only who they spend time with but how they will spend their time … scholars have found that students who interact frequently with peers who are different in significant ways (racially, ethnically, religiously, socioeconomically, and so on) show more intellectual and social growth in college than those who don’t … Decades of research have demonstrated that students who study together learn more, and more deeply.”

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Female Scientists Thrive @ Harvey Mudd

Quartz: “Harvey Mudd College, in Claremont, California, has been an outlier in producing female programmers for a decade. This year, for the first time, more women than men graduated with a degree in computer science. Nationally, about 16% of undergraduate computer-science majors are women. At Harvey Mudd, that figure is 55%.”

“It has done it by removing obstacles that have typically barred women—including at the faculty level. The school emphasizes teaching over research, hiring and rewarding professors on the basis of their classroom performance … And it places women in leadership positions throughout the school.”

“The school … redesigned its introductory course, required for all first-year students, to emphasize practical uses for programming and team based-projects, and switched from the Java programming language to Python, which more closely mimics the way humans communicate … To make everyone feel at ease, professors urge know-it-all students who always have their hand in the air to talk during office hours, instead of in class.”

“As a result of the changes, women who take the introductory course are more likely to leave with a positive impression of programming, and often sign up for the second class in the sequence. Many go on to internships or research projects in the field after their first year, and by then, they’re hooked.”

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