Peer Review

Faculty Perceptions of General Education and the Use of High-Impact Practices

The Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Give Students a Compass project, part of AAC&U’s ongoing Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, focuses on systems change to advance the use of high-impact practices (HIPs), especially in general education courses and programs. Through the Compass project, campus faculty and other academic leaders at nine institutions in three state systems—Wisconsin, Oregon, and the California State University—have worked to map expected student learning outcomes, deployed high-impact practices that help students achieve the intended outcomes, and adopted educationally meaningful assessment strategies for general education reform and implementation. As part of the national project, staff at AAC&U and the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) created a faculty survey to garner input about the underlying assumptions of the Compass project, as well as the intended outcomes of the project.

System-level administrators at Compass institutions provided feedback and supplied questions they hoped to have addressed on the faculty survey. After multiple rounds of review, a final list of common questions was agreed upon. Allowing for some individual modification, seven Compass institutions administered surveys between November 2010 and December 2011.

Respondent Characteristics

The majority of those who responded to the survey (87 percent) were primarily faculty or instructional staff with 56 percent of the respondents being full-time, tenure-track faculty members. Respondents came from humanities and the arts (28 percent), professions and applied sciences (26 percent), social sciences (21 percent), and natural sciences (12 percent). The largest group of respondents teaches both lower and upper-division undergraduates (45 percent). An additional 27 percent teach primarily upper-division undergraduates, 14 percent lower-division undergraduates, and 11 percent primarily to graduate students. Because the survey was about general education, respondents were asked to characterize their home departments based on how many general education courses were offered. Nearly 40 percent came from departments that offer many general education courses, with 35 percent in departments that offered a few general education courses and 21 percent in departments that did not offer any general education courses.

Limitations

One major limitation of the survey is the low response rate of 12.2 percent. People who respond to surveys can usually be categorized as either extremely positive or extremely negative about the subject matter. In results from surveys with low response rates the likelihood is that responses gathered came from these two ends of the spectrum with the silent majority in the middle. On this survey, the difference is clearly seen in responses about whether there was a strong desire to improve general education for them as individuals, and in their departments, institutions and systems. Nearly 70 percent of respondents agreed that they had a strong desire to improve general education, but their perceptions were considerably lower for their departments (43 percent), institutions (44 percent), and systems (32 percent). Clearly respondents perceive themselves to be more engaged on the topic of general education than typical for their institutions.

Another limitation of the survey is the balance that had to be struck in order to ask the questions that needed to be asked but to keep the survey a manageable length. Even after cutting multiple questions, the survey was still long (twenty-four questions, many with multiple items), which would also contribute to a lower response rate. In addition, some questions were double barreled, meaning that they asked about two similar but perhaps not completely distinct ideas such as “teamwork and problem-solving skills,” which technically are two different activities but in the survey are treated as a single topic.

Analyses

These data gathered, while limited by the low response rate, give a good baseline snapshot of perceptions of engaged faculty at seven participating institutions with regard to general education.

Most questions were closed-ended on a six-point scale from “strongly disagree” to “strongly agree.” These six response categories were further combined to represent agreement (“strongly agree” and “agree”), neutrality (“slightly agree” and “slightly disagree”), and disagreement (“disagree” and “strongly disagree”). Four open-ended questions were included on the survey. Three researchers independently analyzed the collected written responses to open-ended questions to identify and code themes or trends among the answers. After coding was completed, the three researchers discussed their individual findings.

Findings

The Compass Faculty Survey asks respondents questions about overarching assumptions about higher education in the country, HIPs in the delivery of general education, and the perceived influence of those educational practices on student learning.

The Relationship of the System to Institutions in Terms of General Education
The majority of respondents (80 percent) agreed that more students need a higher education these days and that the increased level of participation challenges the entire higher education community to learn how to educate all students effectively (82 percent). Similarly, most faculty respondents (72 percent) agreed that students who attend multiple institutions would need additional advice or guidance in order to navigate their studies. Oddly enough, more faculty were neutral (59 percent) when asked for their assessment of whether the majority of students in public institutions construct their education from programs at multiple institutions, with only 27 percent agreeing. In the light of established (Adelman 1999) and more recent research (NSC 2011; NSC 2012) showing students do construct their educations across multiple institutions, this finding may indicate that faculty continue to believe that students at their institutions or in their programs are different than those in the rest of the country.

High-Impact Practices and General Education
With respect to general education, faculty wholeheartedly agreed (85 percent when “slightly agree,” “agree,” and “strongly agree” are totaled) that the foundation for addressing broad goals for student learning in public higher education is the general education curriculum. However, faculty respondents were split on whether general education based on completion of distribution requirements, rather than learning outcomes, effectively demonstrates student learning. Most answered neutrally (55 percent); with an additional 25 percent giving a negative response, but still one-fifth of faculty respondents agreed that general education distribution requirements were effective. This finding would seem to indicate that even with the many initiatives focused on learning outcomes, a healthy minority of faculty hold on to established ways of structuring general education. In related questions, when asked whether making the purpose of learning outcomes in general education clear to students at their institutions would improve student learning, 61 percent agreed, but only 48 percent agreed that general education should be designed intentionally to facilitate success for transfer students. Even when neutral responses are included with those agreeing, the difference diminishes but still remains: 94 percent compared to 88 percent. It is unclear why respondents acknowledge the need to provide clarity to students, but not for the purposes of transfer. This area requires additional research.

In terms of the relationship of general education with majors, 52 percent of faculty respondents agreed that the most important features of general education in the future will foster integration of general education and departmental majors and programs. Nearly 68 percent agreed that helping students make the connection between general education learning outcomes and their major learning was central in teaching and program design.

Underserved Students and System-Wide Change
When asked about three key concepts for the Compass project, 51 percent of respondents agreed that increasing the use of HIPs at institutions in their systems would improve underserved students’ learning. Over half agreed that information and data about student success, sorted by race, ethnicity, age, first-generation status, and transfer status, is useful for faculty on general education planning committees. But only 36 percent felt that changes to general education that should be made by campuses were best developed in concert, aligning the curriculum among campuses in systems. Additional items asked faculty to choose from a list of actions their systems should take to stimulate greater attention to general education at their institutions. Nearly two-thirds believed that systems should articulate clearly to campuses and within broader state communities the purpose and value of general education. Fewer respondents said that systems should facilitate opportunities for leaders of general education committees at institutions in the system to work together (37 percent) and advocate for acknowledgement (awards, written letters for the personal file, etc.) of faculty work that demonstrates students’ achievement of learning outcomes (36 percent). Only 8 percent of respondents believed that the best action by their systems would be to do nothing. These findings suggest that faculty believe that systems should be champions for general education, explaining its importance to the general population while faculty are allowed to work on the day-to-day implementation of general education programs.

Faculty Perceptions of Teaching General Education
We drilled further into faculty members’ perceptions about the teaching of general education. Faculty were asked their level of agreement with action statements based on AAC&U’s Essential Learning Outcomes (see Kuh 2008, 4). The largest percent (87 percent) agreed that students are best able to develop skills, both intellectual and practical, across the curriculum by working on progressively more challenging problems and projects. Eighty percent of respondents felt that students are best able to integrate their learning through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems. About 70 percent believed that students are best able to develop skills related to personal and social responsibility through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges. More than fifty percent (52 percent) agreed that students are best able to gain knowledge of the physical and natural world by engaging contemporary and enduring “big” questions. Additional study would be useful to determine why this particular action statement garners less agreement from faculty than the other statements.

Experience Teaching with Five High-Impact Practices
Survey items also asked faculty about their perspectives on HIPs, including first-year experiences, service learning, learning community experiences, undergraduate research, and capstone experiences. Two distinct questions were posed, one which used the short name for the high-impact practice in question and one which described the high-impact practice without using the short name. For instance, “first-year experiences,” the short name used in the first question, was described in the second question as “seminars and other types of experiences specifically designed to enhance the learning and enrichment of students in their first year of college.”

Fifty-six percent of faculty respondents agreed that they were personally aware of research about the effectiveness of HIPs. Additional questions probed for faculty members’ perceptions of whether these five HIPs improved student learning overall and specifically for underserved students (i.e., underrepresented minority students, students from low-income families, transfer and first-generation students). See tables 1 and 2 for a side-by-side comparison of responses to these questions.

In all cases, a higher percentage of respondents chose each practice when the practice was described in detail rather than simply by short name. This result may be because respondents do not yet associate the name of the high-impact practice with what they already actually do in their classes. Another factor that could influence these results is that a vocal minority of respondents took issue with the “jargon” used on the survey and they may have not answered simply because of the use of jargon (short name).

Table 1. Survey Responses about Experience Teaching with Five High-Impact Practices

Percent Answering "Frequently, but Not Every Term" and "Regulars"
How often do you teach courses that contain any of the following as a core component?
How often would you say you incorporate these experiences into the courses you teach
First-Year Experience
18%
Seminars and other types of experiences specifically designed to enhance the learning and enrichment of students in their first year of college
31%
Service Learning
24%
Learning experiences that encourage students to apply their classroom learning with work they do outside the classroom with a community partner or organization
50%
Learning Community Experiences
26%
Learning experiences that connect your course with a course taught by another faculty member based on a common theme or topic and in which students from across courses may collaborate on group projects, attend common activities, or have other opportunities for interaction
36%
Undergraduate Research
45%
Opportunities for students to carry out research addressing some field of inquiry either on their own or in collaboration with you as a faculty member
58%
Capstone Experiences
36%
Learning experiences specifically designated to enhance the learning of students in their senior year, such as a culminating course or “capstone,” a research or group project, a portfolio, or other culminating exercise
62%

 

Table 2. Survey Responses about Beliefs on How Five High-Impact Practices Improve Student Learning

 
 
PERCENT AGREEING THAT HIPS...
Improve the learning of underserved students
Improve the learning
of all students
First-Year Experience
67%
64%
Service Learning
50%
54%
Learning Community Experiences
62%
65%
Undergraduate Research
64%
71%
Capstone Experiences
74%
79%

Qualitative Findings

Comments on open-ended questions show that a few respondents felt that they had to lower their standards in order to be inclusive. One participant noted, “I have mostly lowered my expectation in terms of the amount of reading that students at [my institution] can handle compared to other institutions where I taught before.” Another respondent stated, “I have lowered my level of my classes for these students.”

Several open-ended questions solicited input from respondents about how they have incorporated HIPs into their own teaching. Answers revealed that much additional work is involved in learning about the practices as well as knowing how best to use those practices in courses. Furthermore, adjunct faculty members are not empowered and are frequently frustrated that they cannot change their courses, suggesting the need to provide professional development on high-impact practices to adjuncts to better utilize people who teach more students.

Written responses also documented that service learning is a high-impact practice often used by respondents; however, there was little qualitative information provided on how developed those practices were or how much fidelity faculty have to proven good practices for implementing student learning. In addition, while respondents agreed that HIPs were being used at the lower division at their institutions (55 percent) as well as at the upper division (77 percent), few specifics were provided in written comments about which faculty members were actually doing this or how it was happening. This finding is curious given that respondents taught in institutions participating in the Compass project, which focused on these activities. Follow up research using focus groups of both highly Compass-involved faculty and faculty highly detached from Compass might help discern the difference.

Another area of focus for the Compass project was the use of student success data to make decisions on how best to integrate and use HIPs in general education for all students. Sixty percent of respondents agreed that access to data and information on student success, high-impact practices, and demographics for new courses that I am teaching would be useful, but only 49 percent agreed that they had used student success information from previous courses to improve new courses that they taught. An open-ended question about data garnered many comments. The majority of faculty had not seen these data, or perhaps did not remember that data were made available to them. Others said that any data that they had seen were not helpful and did not relate to their courses or to the students that they taught. Several responses mentioned that these data did not apply to graduate students, or to certain types of majors/programs, and still others related that underserved students were rare and therefore change was unnecessary. A few comments indicated that the faculty members were already aware of these issues and did not need to change their behavior.

Conclusion

The Compass Faculty Survey about general education is a first step in learning about faculty perceptions from across multiple institutions. From it, we learn that HIPs are being used in general education, but availability of data is clearly an issue, as many faculty at these Compass institutions report they had not seen any data on the impact of HIPs. Unfortunately, there also seemed to be an insidious undertone to several comments that refer to underserved students as “these students,” as opposed to “my” or “our” students. Future research might want to investigate the role of institutional support encouraging faculty to use data, make pedagogical changes, and whether such activities are rewarded by the promotion and tenure structure.

Ackowledgments

The author thanks the faculty at participating Compass institutions; local contacts who helped facilitate IRB submissions and survey administrations; and Marianne Boeke, research associate at NCHEMS, and Tia Brown McNair, senior director for student success in the Office of Engagement, Inclusion, and Success at AAC&U, for their help with analysis of survey findings.

References

Adelman, C. 1999. Answers in the Tool Box: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved at: http://www.aft.org/pub-sreports/american_educator/spring2004/tellthekids.html

Hossler, D., D. Shapiro, A. Dundar, M. Ziskin, J. Chen, D. Zerquera, and V. Torres. 2012. Transfer & Mobility: A National View of Pre-degree Student Movement in Postsecondary Institutions. Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

. 2012. Reverse Transfer: A National View of Student Mobility from Four-Year to Two-Year Institutions. Herndon, VA: National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

Kuh, G. D. 2008. High-Impact Educational Practices: What They Are, Who Has Access to Them, and Why They Matter. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.


Karen Paulson is a senior associate at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems.

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