Making Evergreen work for you

Olympia is home to an amazing alternative scene, as Teresa Eckstein pointed out in a February 2016 article for this paper, including over 20 alternative public and private schools, preschool through college. Alternative schools provide students with approaches to learning—project-based, arts-based, individualized, and/or community-oriented—that differ from traditional classroom approaches. Offering these alternative approaches to learning is intended to help students learn. The Lincoln Options program, for instance, has these overall goals for all Lincoln students:

  • Children will discover that what happens at school, at home, and in the community is a part of the learning process.
  • Children will see themselves as participants in their education.
  • Children will learn in an atmosphere of mutual respect and support.
  • Children will be guided to achieve their full potential.

Embedded in these program goals is the assumption that while learning is something students do, the school as a whole and the teachers in particular have a responsibility for creating conditions in which this can happen.

The Evergreen State College has a set of program goals too, in the form of its “Six Expectations for Evergreen Graduates.” The problem with the Expectations is that they put the responsibility for learning on the students, but no companion document exists outlining related responsibilities for faculty. For example, Evergreen students are expected to “communicate creatively and effectively” by the time they graduate. But faculty have no formal responsibility for making sure that students have opportunities to practice creative and effective communication in the programs and courses they design. Since their inception in the early 2000’s, Evergreen’s educational program goals have been framed as something students need to do rather than as a mutual responsibility shared between faculty and students.

While the college needs to sort this out, the purpose of this article is to suggest a couple of ways to make the current version of Evergreen work for you. The responsibilities that students have for learning are clear—my aim is to suggest some rights.

The right to clear and well-organized instruction

On a recent survey (the 2014 National Survey of Student Engagement), first year students and seniors were asked to assess their experiences at Evergreen across a number of dimensions tied to learning. On two measures, Evergreen students’ assessments of their faculty were lower than students’ assessments of their faculty at other colleges. One was a question about the extent to which faculty clearly explained course goals and requirements. Another was a question about the extent to which faculty taught class sessions in an organized way.

Sixty-seven percent of first year students at Evergreen reported that faculty “very much” or “quite a bit” taught course sessions in an organized way. 80% of first year students at other public liberal arts colleges, and 80% of first year students at all the colleges and universities that use NSSE, reported that their faculty “very much” or “quite a bit” taught course sessions in an organized way.  Seventy-three percent of Evergreen seniors reported the same, compared with 82% of seniors at other pubic liberal arts colleges and 82% of seniors at all the colleges and universities using NSSE.

Results on a related question were very similar. Seventy-one percent of first year Evergreen students reported that faculty “very much” or “quite a bit” clearly explained course goals and requirements, compared with 82% of first year students at other public liberal arts colleges and 82% of first year students at all colleges and universities using NSSE. Seventy-eight percent of Evergreen seniors said the same thing about their faculty, compared with 84% of seniors at other public liberal arts colleges and 83% of seniors at all the colleges and universities using NSSE.

What if you find yourself in a program or a course and discover that the course goals aren’t clear, or that class time is being used in ways that don’t seem useful to you? Ask your teachers to be clearer and more transparent about what they expect you to do, and how they intend to evaluate your work.

The Transparency in Learning and Teaching Project

Some faculty at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas have developed a tool to help make the connections between student learning and faculty teaching more transparent.

Led by Dr. Mary-Ann Winkelmes, the TILT project “encourages conversations among teachers and students about academic assignments (the relevant knowledge, skills to be practiced, required tasks, expected criteria and examples) before the students begin working” (personal email, 9-14-16).

It turns out that when faculty use the TILT framework for explaining the purpose of an assignment and the criteria by which that work will be judged, students are more likely to be successful. Summarizing the results of a project involving faculty from seven different colleges who experimented with using what’s called the transparency framework, Winkelmes argues that “students are more likely to experience greater academic success with that assignment, developing the knowledge, disposition, and skills necessary to succeed both at school and in life” (Peer Review, Spring 2016).

In addition to inviting growing numbers of faculty to take up the work of become more transparent about learning and teaching, Winkelmes and her team are also urging students to assert their right to understand what they are being asked to do, why they are being asked to do it, and how they will be evaluated. Here’s what they’ve created for students:

 

Before you begin working an assignment or class activity, ask your instructor to help you understand the following.

Purpose:

  • Skills you’ll practice by doing the assignment
  • Content knowledge you’ll gain from doing this assignment
  • How you can use these in your life beyond the course, in and beyond college

Task:

  • What to do
  • How to do it (Are there recommended steps? What roadblocks/mistakes should you avoid?)

Criteria:

  • Checklist (Are you on the right track? How to know you’re doing what’s expected?)
  • Annotated examples of successful work (What’s good about these examples? Use the checklist to identify the successful parts.)

Use this framework to ask your faculty to be clearer with you about their expectations before you invest lots of energy in trying to figure out what they mean. Some may push back, making a case that figuring out how to do an assignment is part of the assignment. In some contexts, that’s a reasonable dimension of an assignment, but it’s equally reasonable for faculty to explain why that’s the case.

The right to interdisciplinary learning

Evergreen describes itself as an innovative public liberal arts college that emphasizes collaborative and interdisciplinary learning. The chance to do interdisciplinary studies is a draw for many students but you need to be careful. Currently, Evergreen defines interdisciplinary learning as the inevitable outcome of programs that include at least three “divisions” – art, humanities, natural/physical science, math/quantitative reasoning, and social science. That raises two issues.

First, just because a program includes several different disciplines, it doesn’t mean that students will be given opportunities to practice interdisciplinary thinking. About ten years ago, the Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education organized a research project in which faculty from twenty plus colleges and universities looked at the actual student work coming out of what appeared to be interdisciplinary programs, like the ones at Evergreen. Faculty discovered that all too often, the actual assignments they gave students didn’t ask them to make connections across different disciplines. These interdisciplinary learning communities were like bundles of separate courses packaged into a single unit. In a program that combined art and science, for instance, students might get a two sets of assignments—one for art, and one for science.  In a better version of this program, an interdisciplinary version, students would get not only the art and science assignments, but a different kind of assignment that invited them to put the two disciplines together to come up with something new.  Look for programs where you have both disciplinary and interdisciplinary assignments.

Second, not everyone can teach everything. Look for programs where the formal training of the faculty matches the fields of study listed for the program. If the fields of study listed for the program cross divisions, combining social sciences and natural sciences for instance, or social sciences and humanities, then the faculty teaching those programs should have advanced degrees in those divisions as well.

If you choose a program where the fields of study that are offered are different from what the faculty members have degrees in, you may learn a lot—but you may also spend your time watching your faculty figure things out, which is not necessarily a good use of your time. This form of teaching, where the teacher learns along with the students, has been called the “master learner” model at other colleges. The argument was this: when two or three faculty from different disciplines taught together, their students would have the opportunity to watch “master learners” learn new material. Students could watch me learn biology, for example, and by watching me ask questions and take notes and participate in study sessions, they would develop similar approaches to learning new material. When the model has been assessed on other campuses, it doesn’t appear to work. Learning is an active process, and the best learning situations are ones where learners are invited to engage in structured tasks that combine the right mix of providing new material and time to process it.

If you have credits to spare, or are really excited about a topic, you might take the chance of enrolling in a program where the degrees that faculty have earned are different from what the fields of study they have listed in the catalogue. Otherwise, choose programs and courses where you can clearly see that the faculty members’ expertise matches the fields of study listed for the program.

The pessimism of intelligence and the optimism of will

Lots of people have made wonderful use of their Evergreen educations. You can too, but you have to be careful. In theory, students and faculty are mutually responsible for the learning that goes on, and in that spirit, students are invited to write evaluations of their faculty just as faculty write evaluations of students’ learning. Students’ evaluations of faculty aren’t necessarily read, however, by anyone other than the faculty member. Once faculty have tenure, their professional work is reviewed once every five years via a portfolio that is supposed to include student evaluations. No record is kept of those meetings, and not all faculty ask for or collect evaluations from all students. For faculty without tenure, both those new to the college and those teaching as adjunct or visiting faculty, reviews happen more often. The expectation is that student evaluations will be part of that review, but the practice is uneven.

Evergreen students are making concerns about the quality of their undergraduate experiences known—but as an organization, the college doesn’t have much experience implementing strategies or practices that support student learning. Too often, cries for preserving tradition get in the way of looking clearly at students’ experiences and their concerns and then responding. Perhaps that will change. As Antonio Gramsci put it so succinctly, “I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Emily Lardner directs the Washington Center for Improving Undergraduate Education and teaches in the evening/weekend program at Evergreen.-