From the Director: Impressions from the Academically Adrift reading group.

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During J-Term, Faculty Development sponsored weekly breakfast meetings to discuss Academically Adrift by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa – a book that has been receiving lots of attention in higher education circles this past year (see our December issue of Synergia for more information and a book review). Following twenty-three hundred undergraduates at a variety of institutions and examining student learning data, the authors suggest that student learning is very limited over the course of four years. In addition, some higher order skills – particularly critical thinking – are not improving. They also found evidence, based on student surveys, of limited effort being expended toward studying and preparing for classes.

Twenty-one UST faculty and staff members committed to meeting weekly and discussing Academically Adrift, and we had some rich conversations about Arum and Roksa’s findings and suggestions. Fortunately Michael Jordan and Mike Cogan were present, and they helped us understand how St. Thomas evaluates student learning; their highly informative essay in this issue of Synergia provides a helpful and positive look at how our students fare on the evaluation measure cited most frequently in Academically Adrift. The reading group also focused on how our own institutional culture and teaching practices compared to those described in Arum and Roksa’s findings; faculty generally agreed with the authors’ suggestion of a shift in student culture in recent years that minimizes attention to intellectual matters to allow more time for social interaction; we have seen this in our own students. Yet, Arum and Roksa present a picture of faculty members who concede to shifting student norms by lowering standards and expectations in the classroom, and we agreed that most UST faculty are resisting that trend. We also noted the ways in which St. Thomas has embraced some of the best practices mentioned by the authors, such as high student-faculty engagement outside the classroom and strong focus on improving students’ writing skills through our adoption of the Writing Across the Curriculum program.

What impressed me as I listened to the ongoing discussion was the commitment of our faculty to engage with these issues on a cold January morning, their investment in improving student learning outcomes and willingness to explore ideas and practices that would support high quality teaching. We are facing some significant shifts in higher education today, and we are dealing with culture-change among undergraduate students. Even so, my J-Term reading group experience has given me confidence that our faculty possess both the skills and the passion required for keeping us on course toward academic excellence. We are not adrift.

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