One of the most common and important questions that any prospective student asks a college or university is, “how will I be shaped by an education at your institution?”
It is common knowledge that students who wish to get the most out of their education do so, said Elizabeth Minnich, senior scholar for the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU).
But what is that universities are doing to ensure that student’s are receiving the best education possible?
According to Angela Owush-Ansah
associate dean of the school of education at Elon, it is the job of teachers to help students make connections and develop these qualities.
“It is not impractical if you ask all sorts of employers and leaders what they hope students are learning that they will say, ‘teach them to think, to be creative, to be responsible, to be imaginative and to care about living well among others,’” Minnich said. “That can be done through engagement with virtually every sort of content.”
Elon University identifies itself as a small-private college dedicated to engaged learning, and about a year ago it opened the Center for Engaged Learning (CEL).
Elon’s CEL works internationally to develop and synthesize research on central questions about student learning, to foster research about engaged learning and to host multi-institutional research, conferences and seminars, according to Jessie Moore, associate director of CEL.
This past Oct. 2 – 5, CEL hosted the 2013 Conference of the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (ISSOTL).
“I cannot think of a time when higher education opportunities mattered more in the world,” said Elon President Leo Lambert while speaking at a conference plenary. “So much hangs in the balance that will be decided by the future leaders in our classrooms today. We must remember that our business is not awarding diplomas, it is human transformation,” he said.
A renewed interest in engaged learning
According to Owush-Ansah, the difference between engaged and traditional learning is primarily collaborative and active in nature.
It is through engagement that human transformation is possible, and according to Minnich it is how, “we end up with knowledge that is part of who we are, rather than something we have in some compartment as long as we can remember it.”
In his article, “Engaged Learning: Are We All on the Same Page?” Stephen Bowen of the AACU writes, “Engagement is increasingly cited as a distinguishing characteristic of the best learning in American higher education today.”
Although engaged learning is not a new concept, it has recently resurfaced and gained increased attention throughout the international educational community.
One reason for the resurfacing, as said by Jessie Moore associate director of CEL, is because colleges and universities are having to come up with answers to the “what’s the value of a degree at your institution” question.
“One of the ways to answer those types of questions is to think about the experiences we offer and the value it brings to a student’s education,” she said.
High Impact Practices and the Elon Experiences
Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) is a national advocacy, campus action, and research initiative that champions the importance of a twenty-first century liberal education, according to AACU, and it details high impact practices.
What exactly is engaged learning though?
“A lot of engaged learning research talks about it as high impact practices, and George Kuh is one of the first folks to really synthesize some of the research on engaged learning,” Moore said. “There are also things like the AACU that brings together a lot of work on high impact practices.”
Moore indentified these high impact practices, which at Elon are also known as the “Elon Experiences,” as: study abroad, undergraduate research, internships, service learning and leadership. Also included in high impact practices is writing-intensive courses and living-learning communities.
“CEL focuses on trying to understand the characteristics of those high impact practices. So, what makes them effective? What makes it so that they really support engaged learning?” Moore said. “The second aspect that we promote is trying to understand how to scale those experiences so that more students can participate.”
In short, high impact practices place particular emphasis on the importance of real-world experiences and hands-on learning.
According to CEL, increasing student involvement in all high impact practices is a goal of the center. (Data provided by CEL).
Elon’s CEL: an emphasis on collaboration
Another reason why engaged learning is resurfacing, according to Moore, is because there is a renewed interested in learning from one another across disciplines.
“We’ve got people looking at service learning, and we’ve got people looking at undergraduate research. We’ve got professional organizations focused on small slices of engaged learning, but not necessarily talking to each other and exploring what is happening across all those high impact practices,” she said.
It is CEL’s dedication to researching all aspects of engaged learning that makes it unique to other centers worldwide, said Peter Felten, executive director of CEL and Elon’s Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning (CATL).
“What CEL is trying to do is do multi-institutional research from different kinds of institutions and ideally from different countries, and to really understand on the ground what [engaged] learning looks like and what seems to help that learning happen,” Felten said. “Its much more practical research than gigantic surveys or small very situated ones.”
Thus, beyond researching the effectiveness of high impact practices, CEL helps students integrate learning across experiences and make stronger connections among them, said Moore.
In his article “Engaged Learning: Are We All on the Same Page?” Stephen Bowen of the AACU categorizes engaged learning into four different categories.
In his plenary at ISSOTL ’13, Lee Shulman emphasized the importance of understanding differences and collaborating across disciplines in the process of discovering successful teaching methods.
“Real knowledge is universal knowledge,” he said.
It is for this reason that one of CEL’s primary goals is to facilitate broader international discussions on engaged learning.
“I have long believed that practicing thinking together with differing people about interesting, significant questions, projects and issues is the single most important thing we do,” Minnich said. “In an age in which information, even knowledge and to some extent even wisdom, has never been so quickly and easily available, thinking it — whatever it is — over, questioning, reflecting, varying, imagining and going deeper is crucial.”
Think tanks, conferences and more
One way in which CEL works to achieve its goals is by bringing people to campus for research seminars, “to share what they already know about the high impact practices,” Felten said.
Lee Shulman emphasized the importance of collaboration across all disciplines during his plenary at ISSOTL’13.
These seminars last for three-consecutive summers, in which guests, “develop research questions to go back to their campuses and conduct research, come back to Elon, share what they’ve learned, refine their research and figure out what the multi-institutional connections there are,” Felten said.
CEL just finished a seminar focused on writing as a high impact practice and is now accepting applications for its next seminar, which will be focused on excellence in mentoring undergraduate research.
CEL also brings people to campus for shorter periods of time to participate in “think tanks and have some focused conversation about high impact practices to help consolidate what we know, think about what we don’t know and make some plans together for how we are going to fill in some of those knowledge gaps,” Moore said.
It is primarily through these think tanks and seminars that students can participate in CEL’s research. Also part of the center’s programming is hosting and participating in conferences.
SoTL, or the scholarship of teaching and learning is the type of scholarship that CEL promotes, and as previously stated, CEL hosted the ISSOTL ‘13 Conference in Raleigh this October.
According to Vanderbilt University’s Center for Teaching, the scholarship or teaching and learning, “represents an international multidisciplinary movement to better understand teaching and learning in the college classroom.”
Since the ISSOTL’13 conference CEL’s website has received increased international views. (Graphic provided by CEL)
In his article “Principles of Good Practice in SoTL,” Felten, describes five principles of good practice in SoTL as, “inquiry focused on student learning, grounded in context, methodologically sound, conducted in partnership with students [and] appropriately public.”
The International Society for SoTL (ISSOTL), which was founded in 2004, “serves faculty members, staff and students who are about teaching and learning as serious intellectual work. The goal of the Society is to foster inquiry and disseminate findings about what improves and articulates post-secondary learning and teaching.”
CEL on a national scale
There is not enough evidence to call CEL the first of its kind, but it’s definitely a unique center from those to which it might be compared.
Cornell University’s Engaged Learning + Research, which, “is a new university-wide center designed to advance academic service-learning, community-based research, and public scholarship across a wide spectrum of academic disciplines and programs,” is similar to CEL.
Also similar is Wake Forest University’s Teaching and Learning Center, which, “hosts events designed to bring together faculty and other professionals and discuss the challenges of teaching in and across disciplines.”
Alice Moore and Tawanna Franklin said that their work in the Wabash Provost Scholar program provided them with a deeper connections to their education.
“We know that there are other research centers that focus on small parts of engaged learning, but as far as we know we are the only one that is focused on engaged learning holistically,” Moore said.
The Wabash Center in Indiana, for example, does more survey related research on engaged learning, she said, and CEL, “certainly hopes to partner with them and work in combination in the future.”
The Academy for Teaching and Learning at North Carolina Agriculture and Technical State University adopted research methods from the Wabash Center to create the Wabash Provost Scholars program.
Alice Moore and Tawanna Franklin, two student scholars who were trained to conduct various assessment activities aimed at improving the learning environment at the university, shared their experience as co-researchers at the ISSOTL ’13 conference.
They said that through their participation in the program they gained a better understanding of digging deeper into data, developing research skills and how to reflect upon their own education.
CEL and CATL: a clear distinction
Although not many universities have the full equivalent of Elon’s CEL, the presence of CATL and other similarly named teaching and learning centers is much more nationally prevalent; however, a clear distinction must be made between the two.
CEL is focused externally while CATL is conversely focused more internally, Felten said.
“CATL is primarily focused on promoting the growth and possibilities for faculty in terms of investigating their own teaching and student learning,” said Deandra Little, managing director of CATL at Elon. “A lot of what we do here at the center is think about the evidence based research on student learning or on differing teaching methods and strategies that promote that.”
CATL offers teachers a variety of help from conducting mid-semester focus groups in order to collect student feedback to meeting with teachers in individual consultations in order to address concerns or offer ways to improve teaching.
“Faculty are already doing the real hard work of making teaching and learning happen, but then it can also be useful to have a space where we are trying to figure out what the most recent trends are, so we can send those out to people who we know are interested,” Little said.
President Leo Lambert recognized the work of CEL and CATL at the ISSOTL ’13 conference.
Unlike CATL, the agenda for CEL isn’t driven by individual faculty needs that might change day-to-day, Felten said, the agenda for CEL is looking at institutional needs and what higher education research says.
“CEL is a bit like a sister center but it’s more externally focused so we still share resources with Elon faculty, and we work with Elon faculty who are interested in pursuing these research projects on a multi-institutional scale, but we are in essence connecting Elon’s work to work at other institutions,” Moore said.
In his article, “Through the Learning Lense,” George Boggs states, “When institutions and organizations begin to identify with processes instead of intended outcomes, they become vulnerable. They lose sight of their real missions and, when faced with challenges or disruptive innovation, often struggle to survive.”
In order to survive in the rapidly changing world, educators are turning towards each other to stay up-to-date.
“Successful teaching is something that they have been trying for generations to define,” said Mary Wise, associate vice president of academic affairs at Elon University. “I think if you ask five different people you will get five different answers.”
Collaboration across disciplines could help lead to a better understanding of the most successful and effective teaching methods. Such collaboration in the field of higher education is facilitated by centers such as Elon’s CEL.
Today universities are being held personally responsible for proving their own worth and value in the competitive higher education society, and centers such as Elon’s CEL is an example of such proof.
“Money spent on a college education is not money spent to buy a job. It is money spent on finding support and resources to develop yourself,” Minnich said. “Education is not a product; it is an experience, and no one can have an experience for you, nor is anyone’s experience just like anyone else’s.”