Declining by Degrees : Meet the Experts - GEORGE KUH

Meet the Experts - GEORGE KUH

A few more interesting comments from George Kuh, excerpted from his interview.
Q: Everybody is talking about NSSE, but outside of a small group of people who speak that language it sounds like a sea monster. What is it?
KUH: NSSE [National Survey of Student Engagement] is a short, highly focused survey that asks students to report their behaviors and activities over the course of the academic year. So, first-year and senior students answer questions about how often they talk to faculty members outside the classroom, how often they work on problems inside the classroom. How much reading and writing they do. And how often they get feedback from faculty. All of these activities and a host of other important behaviors we know matter to their learning. They also tell us how much they've gained from college in key areas.
Q: Someone said NSSE was started to be an antidote to the US News rankings. Why does US News need an antidote?
KUH: Well, if an antidote is in order it's because US News rankings don't really tell you anything about the student experience. Rankings tell you what a school has, and who it selects or admits. But rankings don't tell you anything about the nature of the student experience there. Just take a close look at the variables. In fact you can replicate the US News rankings by knowing one number, and that's a school's average SAT score.
Q: US News is not reliable?
KUH: Oh, it's very reliable -- if you want to predict SAT scores. But it's not very reliable if you want to know how students are spending their time, whether they're interacting with faculty. It's not very reliable if you want to know the numbers of students who are doing research projects with a faculty member who are studying abroad, who interact in meaningful ways with people from different backgrounds. The rankings don't tell you anything about that.
Q: What does it tell you?
KUH: It tells you essentially how selective the institution is. Period.
Q: Why does US News and some other rankings have so much power and influence?
KUH: In American society we like to know who's on top, and we want to know why what used to be number one isn't today. And then we make up all sorts of interesting explanations for why that is so. It's part of our culture, John. And so we rank every thing. If we can grab it, we rank it. If can assign a number to it, we will rank it. And this is why at the National Service Student Engagement [NSSE} we do not report or use only a single number to characterize a school. Our view is that the college experience is pretty complicated, and there are lots of different ways of looking at it. We can measure and estimate different aspects of it. But when you reduce the experience to a single number, ooh, that's tragic. The number doesn't tell you anything about the writing intensive experience the student's had. Doesn't tell you anything about whether they're actually talking with people from different countries, or socio-economic background. What does that number tell you? It turns out, we know now, it tells you what the average SAT score is at the institution.
Q: So what are you measuring with NSSE?
KUH: We argue we're measuring collegiate quality based upon what researchers have said over the years makes for really good learning experiences. The NSSE items posed to students represent what we know from lots of work translates into positive learning outcomes.
Q: I can go to US News, and I can find out who's the best research university in the country, or who's the best liberal arts college in the Northeast. Can I go to you, to NSSE and ask "Who's the best ... "
KUH: You mean the most engaging school in the Northeast? No. It's not part of our agreement. Our primary responsibility is to the institutions we work with. And our mission is to give them information that they can use immediately to improve practice. We have other missions. We want people to question other indices of quality and ask what's the basis on which institutional reputation for example is important. What's the basis on which it rests? So we have an educative function, to inform the public. And we also want to find out what works better in certain circumstances. We're about institutional improvement. We're not about creating another ranking system, because rankings don't help institutions in any way. In fact there's plenty of evidence so suggest that schools spend a lot of time and energy trying to �game� the rankings, and they spend money doing that that they could be investing into things that actually matter to student learning.
Q: So is US News part of the quality vs. prestige issue in higher education?
KUH: No, US News itself is not an obstacle to quality. It may have been a deterrent in terms of institutions trying to figure out what to do that might actually make a difference in students' lives. And there is a small segment of the population that needs US News to affirm the kinds of decisions their kids are making. Ironically, most students don't read US News. For 90+ percent of college students US News rankings are irrelevant. They're going to stay within their home state and choose among three or four places that they have access to. So it's not a big part of the problem. But what is needed is an alternative perspective. And that's what NSSE and some other projects are offering. There are different ways of thinking about this, but if you really want to know what's happening on a campus, go and ask NSSE-like questions. Don't rely on this one number � the ranking -- to be an indicator that something meaningful is happening. And by the way, many of the places that are ranked high are probably doing some pretty good work with their students. We just don't have much evidence of it.
Q: What surprises you when freshmen and seniors answer the NSSE questions?
KUH: What surprises most people is the small number of hours students spend preparing for class. The faculty mantra is that students ought to spend at least two hours preparing for class for every hour inside the classroom. But they don't. The good news is, students actually spend more time preparing for class in college than they did in high school. The bad news is they only spend about four or five hours a week studying in high school. And they spend on average, 10, 11, 12, maybe 13 hours studying in college � it varies of course by discipline. But the 12-13 average is nowhere near the 30 or so that would be the amount a full time undergraduate student ought to spend by faculty asserted standards. The worst part about this is, the faculty members themselves, when they estimate how much time students are spending studying, estimate a much lower number than they say students should be studying to do well. But while this is happening students are still getting pretty good grades � A's and B's � essentially for spending about half as much time as faculty members say is important.
Q: What's causing this?
KUH: Many students today are coming to college with an entitlement mentality, which says I have been an A student in high � and about 45% of them have been � so now I'm in college and I know it's going to be harder so I'm willing to study twice as many hours as I did in high school! And if I do, then you as a faculty member should give me the grade I deserve � an A, maybe a B. I will put in what I consider to be reasonable effort and in return expect a good grade. Your job as a teacher is to honor that.
And students are more assertive today. It's not unusual for faculty to get an e-mail from students, during pre registration, asking how many papers are required. And how long are they? And what was the grade distribution the past few terms, which now are public in many institutions? Oh yes, and by the way, is it okay if I miss the week before spring break, and the week after, because I've got a family wedding, and I've got another event with my roommate that I have to attend to? If I miss class, will my grade be affected? I don't want to be disadvantaged, you see. And of course if the student gets the wrong answers, she will just shop and find another course. Not every undergraduate does that, but it's part of the undergraduate culture today.
On the faculty side, they're being asked to do more research and to teach more students which usually translates into larger classes, which means they have more work to do. As faculty are pressed to do more in various areas it is easier to give good grades than hold students to a higher standard. And this has led to what I call a disengagement compact. It's been building for 20 years or more. On the faculty member's side it is, �I won't require too much from you, if you don't expect too much from me back.� If I write notes in the margin of your paper, the chances increase that you're going to want come and know what my comments meant, especially if I give you a C grade. So, I'll give you a little less feedback. I'll shave the grade in your favor, because I won't have to explain to you what it is you need to do to raise that grade. Now, I'm not saying that that characterizes the American professorate, but it's there. It's real. It's problematic. We don't like it as faculty. And students are getting short changed in the bargain, ultimately.
Q: You call it disengagement. Someone else called it a non-aggression pact. Don't ask too much of me, I won't ask too much of you.
KUH: I prefer the disengagement term, because aggression makes it appear that one group is the victim of an unwanted, hostile act. The disengagement pact serves both students and faculty interests, though it is not really what each wants out of the relationship. The student goes to college to get a good learning experience. Now I may not want to put as much time and energy in it as I probably could, and should, to benefit maximally. On the faculty side, it's trading the satisfaction of seeing students blossom against how to do that effectively with two hundred or more students in a given academic term. How many students can a faculty member authentically attend to in a meaningful way, especially for a writing intensive class, for example? It's problematic.
Q: Talk to me a little bit about whether perhaps college is too easy.
KUH: Well, it's too easy for many. And for most, college is not as rewarding academically or intellectually as it could be. Most disappointing is that when you ask students before they start college, what they think college will be like, they expect to read and write more and spend more time with faculty than they actually do by the end of that first year of college. And these expectations are not way out of line in terms of what faculty think students should do. Many students can get through their first year of college at large institutions without writing a single paper, which probably also means they have not received any feedback on their writing.

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