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Wabash survey stirs academic pot

Christian Diaz, Staff Writer (cdiaz@wwc)

Students working in Witherspoon

Wabash survey results have gotten students and faculty murmuring throughout campus about academic rigor at Warren Wilson.

The survey was conducted by an independent group at Wabash College. It is a part of a national study of small liberal arts colleges which assesses what works and what doesn’t in the liberal arts curriculum. The three hour long survey was taken by an incoming class of freshmen in 2008, and then retaken at the end of their first year. Students involved will take the survey again during their senior year.

The study focuses on student attitudes and how they have been shaped by liberal art education. There are two types of questions on the survey. There are questions regarding individual preferences such as how often one consumes alcohol. There are also outcome questions that deal with logic, critical thinking and ethics.

Although the study is not yet complete, a summary has spotlighted sentiments regarding the academic challenge students feel. So far the study shows that critical thinking skills go up tremendously during the first year, but academic challenge and motivation slump severely- especially when compared to other liberal arts institutions. The response to the survey is extremely diverse.

Jeff Holmes, has been involved with the survey from the beginning of Warren Wilson’s participation. The school is now in the third year of the study.

He said, “There’s this perception that WWC is a monoculture of hippies that all share the same opinions. In fact, the surveys allow me to appreciate just how many different niches there are in the student body in terms of high achieving students and low-achieving students and the difference between seniors and freshmen.”

The survey results have sparked an intense dialogue among students and faculty as they attempt to collectively assess the reality of academic rigor at Warren Wilson College. One criticism of the survey is that it was taken by freshmen, thus the sample does not reflect the general sentiment of the student body at large. Another is that the survey does not take into account the triad which is very unique at this school. In the context of the triad, is it fair to compare survey results to those of other liberal arts colleges?

Paula Garrett, dean of academics said “I think we have to compare ourselves to other small liberal arts colleges. We have to do so from a point of understanding. We are quite different. Our students have different obligations. Not to compare ourselves to other schools is to let ourselves off the hook too easily. I think that is not useful.”

Despite criticism of the study, faculty is taking survey results very seriously. There are a number of facets of academics that are being called into question. Things such as faculty and course evaluations, grade inflation, course level assessment and the implementation of mandatory cumulative final exams have been brought up at student and faculty meetings.  Although the study will elicit response in the form of school policy, specific changes are still up for debate.

“I think that the results are some of the best data we have about student learning at our school. Probably some of these feelings were already there. Certain faculty definitely feel that students are not motivated enough and there are students who believe faculty aren’t working hard enough or providing a very good education. They have used the data to validate those notions. Those notions are the most important to look at as a college. Let’s lay it out on the table and talk about it,” Jeff Holmes said.

“Anytime you compare yourself to an external bench mark you get a bit of a wake-up call. There are points of pride and points of challenge which ask for improvement. But I think this is a specific wake-up call. The issue about academic challenge is something we cannot ignore. Academic challenge is something I don’t want to just analyze and pull apart- I want to do something. What that is I don’t know exactly,” Garrett said.

There appears to be a discrepancy between the level of courses and what they actually look like. This has been discussed by faculty as general education requirements are currently being evaluated.

“When I talk to students about it I get the impression that for them one of the issues is that there is an unevenness that they perceive of their classes some students feel that some classes are extremely challenging and exciting and others are boring and a waste of their time. I think faculty need to do a better job of explaining why it is that they do what they do in class, so in a way it’s as much a problem of perception as it is of delivery” Homes said.

“We want to make sure that freshmen courses look like freshmen courses and junior courses look like junior courses. I think we’re at a point where we know that if you’re teaching a sophomore level class and its populated with seniors then those seniors are not going to be challenged enough in a sophomore level class. We have an open attitude toward that. We just offer a class at whatever level faculty think it is and whatever level student wants to take it takes it,” Garrett said.

The issue of academic coherence within departments is also being brought into question. There has been student criticism regarding the sameness of class focus within departments.

“Every department is doing an evaluation of itself partly for external creditors and partly to participate in this conversation. If every department takes every syllabus and puts them side by side we can start asking, what does it look like for individual students to go through a chemistry major? Or what if every class is teaching the same aspect of writing a paper? Departmentally we are looking at it,” Garrett said.

While criticism has been mostly directed at faculty, faculty also feels that the issue must be approached collectively. Academic rigor is part of the college culture and faculty cannot address the issue alone. According to some there is a discrepancy between what students say they feel collectively and the decisions students make individually.

“Students have to do their part, if they want to be challenged than they should step up when classes do get more challenging. When there is an option to op in or opt out they should opt in more so that collectively we raise the standard,” Garrett said. “Individually students turn in papers late, miss class, and come to class without having done their work or scour the schedule for the easiest classes. We all have to be in it together and we have to apply some consistent standards to both faculty and students.”

The Wabash study survey has sparked a dialogue that might lead to changes that will make the academic portion of Warren Wilson’s triad more rigorous, but changes will be decided upon collectively. In the past students have shot down an honors system, but the proposition might resurface among other changes.

“It was very sobering to have this team of outsiders come and look at us,” said Holmes.

“We want our degree to mean everything it can possibly mean,” concludes Garrett. “I think that bringing the Wabash people here and making the results public was the right decision because we’ve started a dialogue around campus. I think it is fantastic for students to ask for more and they should be ready when we give them more.”


One Response to “Wabash survey stirs academic pot”

  1. Maybe we should take more 16-17 year olds so we can get an even more out of this balanced relationship. Their addition this year was a new LOW.

    Posted by ANOMOLY | December 17, 2010, 3:07 am

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