By Doug Ward

Education changes people.

Those of us who teach know that well. We see students transform during their degrees, and sometimes during a semester. Their skills improve. Their thinking deepens. Their confidence blossoms.

As it changes minds, though, education also changes the relationships students have with family and friends, adding stress to students’ lives from an unexpected source. Students generally learn to cope with those changes, but they often aren’t sure how to broach the subject with family and friends. They don’t want to anger others, or make them feel diminished. But they also don’t want to hold themselves back.

That personal aspect of learning is just one of many issues that students have brought up during focus groups I’ve led on learning, engagement, and student motivation over the past two years. I wrote recently about what students say helps them learn. Students openly admit that they struggle with many aspects of higher education, though. If we are willing to listen, they will tell us what they think we need to know.

What students want faculty to know

Some of students’ best experiences in college come from meaningful discussions with professors who have expertise in a particular field or who simply take time to learn who they are and help them find their way. Students rave about professors who “made me feel comfortable and made time for me.”

celka straughn, phil baringer and andrea greenhoot at the student learning symposium
Celka Straughn, director of academic programs at the Spencer Museum of Art, speaks with Phil Barringer, professor of physics, during a lunch session at the Student Learning Symposium. Andrea Greenhoot, director of CTE (background), led the session.

On the other hand, students say that professors who come across as unapproachable, condescending, and inflexible diminish the value of classes, majors, and degrees. Some of those professors simply won’t make time for students, though students recognize the challenge that large classes bring. Big lectures make students feel lost and anonymous, they say, and professors in those classes often have a hard time connecting to students.

Other obligations. Remember that students are taking more than your class. They also have obligations at work, family and organizations. Also remind students about office hours. Yes, they know about office hours, they say, but a reminder now and then helps.

Pointless classes. Far too many classes seem pointless, students say. They give a variety of reasons for that:

  • Some classes lack any relation to students’ goals or interests, and faculty members fail to explain the point of the class. All too often, the same professors who challenge colleagues to explain the “so what?” of research don’t ask the same question about the courses they teach. “I’m at point where I know what I want to do,” one student said. “I value the time and money I put into a class.”
  • Some courses within a major are too basic, students say. They want to be challenged, and some assignments seem like little more than busy work.
  • Some faculty members come across as pretentious and diminish the subject matter of their classes. They may think their class covers the most important topic in the world, students say, but simply saying that doesn’t make it so.

Professors also need to be clearer about the expectations of classes, students say. Some classes require more independent learning; others require students to follow specific guidelines. Students can work with either system, they say. They just need clear expectations.

What students want administrators to know

College costs too much. This is both a political and institutional issue, especially at a state university. Students understand the politics of state reductions in university financing and the corresponding rise in tuition. They also want a strong, vibrant university. Yet most have jobs to help pay college costs, they say, and some work 20 to 35 hours a week.

Advising is uneven. Most students rave about their advisors, especially the ones in their majors. They have harsh words for the general advising system, though. “For every good comment I’ve heard about general advisors, I’ve heard three bad ones,” one student said. Friends had been told to take classes they didn’t need, delaying graduation. One mentioned a friend who was told at freshman orientation that he had five minutes to figure out his first schedule. Most certainly, this isn’t a typical experience. Stories like these stand out in students’ minds, though, and cast a shadow on the advising system. Advisors and faculty members also need to keep an open mind, students say. Students change their minds about majors and classes as they learn more about themselves and their interests, and just learn more in general.

Smaller classes make a difference. I’ve heard this over and over from students, and pedagogical research backs it up. Those least equipped to handle large lecture classes are beginning students, yet those are the very students required to enroll in those classes. Many instructors have worked to overcome the weakness of large classes with in-class group work and two-stage exams, techniques that help shrink the class and improve student learning. Students at the most recent learning symposium spoke about the many benefits of that. Unfortunately, active learning in large classes is still rare.

Students generally rave about first-year seminars, saying that those types of courses help them make connections and help them acclimate to university learning. Some suggest a broader requirement for an orientation-type course that focuses on how to learn and how to structure your life in college.

Make classes more transparent. Students say they want to be able to make more informed decisions about the classes they take. Some want evaluations of courses and professors made public. They would take the evaluation system more seriously, they said, if they saw the results and knew their comments could help future students. They see the current system as opaque and don’t see that their evaluations matter much. That’s one reason they turn to sources like They understand the downside of that sort of ratings system – that students who have had really good or really bad experiences are most likely to post – but they say the university has offered them no other options.

What students want families and friends to know

Students are often surprised by how education changes their relationships with friends and family members, they said. That’s especially true with first-generation college students, whose burgeoning independence, broadening views of the world, and distance from home make them wonder what to talk about with family and old friends. Those who had once anchored their lives seem to drift away as their lives change, they form new friendships, and they begin to understand better who they are.

As you can imagine, that unmooring generates stress. Students still care about family and friends back home, but they are torn between a new life and an old life. Family members and longtime friends, they say, sometimes don’t seem to value the changes the students are undergoing. Those changing relationships add to the stress students feel, and that stress can be enormous. A recent study of American freshmen found that a third felt overwhelmed by all the things they had to do in college.

None of this is particularly surprising, but it serves as a good reminder about the complexities of higher education. Students some to college to learn, and yet learning involves a tangle of interrelated components. Students at one focus group were especially vocal about something they wanted faculty members to keep in mind:

We are people, too.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

Course redesign has become a crucial piece of helping college students succeed.

The statistics below about enrollment and graduation rates make it clear that success is too often elusive. Course redesign is hardly the only solution to that problem, but it is a proven, tangible step that colleges and universities can take.

Course redesign involves moving away from faculty-centered lectures and adopting student-centered techniques that improve learning. It usually includes online work that students do outside of class and in-class work that allows them to delve deeper into course material. (For more, see the report of the Provost’s Task Force on Course Redesign, of which I was a member.)

In the most recent issue of Change magazine, Carol Twigg of the National Center for Academic Transformation lists seven strategies that she says are “essential to improving the quality of student learning.” These strategies have emerged from the center’s work over the past 15 years and mesh well with what we have found at CTE. They are:

Brad Osborne with a group of students in a music theory class
Brad Osborne works with students in a music theory course he redesigned to provide more interaction and active learning.
  • Redesigning courses across sections to provide consistency.
  • Focusing on active learning.
  • Increasing student interactions. This includes group work and other activities that take the place of lecture.
  • Building in prompt, automatic feedback. This involves use of digital tools to provide feedback on quizzes and other assignments.
  • Providing one-on-one assistance. Twigg writes, “Students cannot live by software alone: They need human contact as well as encouragement to assure them that they are on the right learning path.”
  • Requiring sufficient time on task. This means providing incentives for attendance, participation, and completion of assignments.
  • Monitoring student progress and intervening when necessary.

As Twigg explains, none of this can be done without strong departmental and university support. She provides several excellent suggestions on how schools can do this.

College enrollment and completion rates decline

Two reports from the National Student Clearinghouse point to struggles among colleges to attract and keep students.

In one report, the clearinghouse said that six-year graduation rates for students who entered college in 2009 fell to 52.9 percent. That is down from 55 percent among students who began in 2008. Declines were steepest among students who delayed entering college after high school, and among adults.

Students at public universities fared better than the overall average, with 61.2 percent graduating in six years. That is still a decline from 62.9 percent among those who began in 2008. Six-year graduation rates at private universities were 10 points higher, at 71.5 percent.

The clearinghouse attributed the declines in part to strains brought on by the Great Recession, saying that they could have been even greater had colleges and universities not created programs to improve student success.

In another report, the clearinghouse said that fall enrollment at post-secondary institutions has fallen for the third straight year. Four-year public universities bucked that trend, with enrollment rising by 0.4 percent. Enrollment at all other types of post-secondary institutions declined: four-year for-profit colleges by 13.7 percent, two-year public colleges by 2.4 percent, and four-year non-profit private universities by 0.3 percent.

The need for a college education

Those graduation rates loom large as the skills needed for jobs grow. By 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require education and training beyond high school, according to a report by the Center on Education and the Workforce.

The U.S. has a long way to go. About a third of Americans age 25 and older hold a bachelor’s degree, and nearly 40 percent hold at least a two-year degree. (That varies widely by race and ethnicity, though.) Income generally rises along with level of education, but as Brian Stoffel of the Motley Fool explains, that doesn’t mean there’s a direct correlation or that a higher income translates into greater job satisfaction. Not everyone needs or wants a four-year degree. Anyone who wants to adapt to a changing job landscape, though, must be willing to continually gain new skills.

High school graduation rates rise

Interestingly, as colleges and universities struggle to maintain enrollments, the high school graduation rate has reached a record high. As The Atlantic reports, 82 percent of high school seniors received diplomas in 2014.

It points out many reasons to be skeptical of those numbers, though. And The New York Times goes even further, suggesting that high graduation rates may really be a sign of diminishing expectations and lower standards at some schools.

College rankings that follow the money

I don’t give college rankings systems much credence. Far too much of academic success depends on students’ backgrounds and on the amount of effort they put into their academic work, regardless of what college they attend.

The latest fad in rankings focuses on graduates’ earnings, something that has emerged as college costs have risen.

By one measure of earnings, The Topeka Capital-Journal reports, most of Kansas’s public universities don’t hold up well. Graduates of all but one state public university (Pittsburg State) earn less than expected 10 years after they began college. The article is based on federal data compiled by the Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, which created a salary-weighted rankings system.

Under this measure, KU ranks 1,212 out of 1,400 institutions. At the top are the University of Colorado at Denver, and (yes) Georgetown.

Much of the Capital-Journal article is taken up by university officials speculating about why their graduates fare so poorly under these rankings. The upshot: No one really knows, as is the case with most rankings.

Briefly …

Maine is the only state in New England that spends more on education than on prisons, The Bangor Daily News reports, citing a study from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. …

Douglas Anderson of Southern Illinois University vents about university administrative bloat and suggests that higher education could solve many academic problems by slashing administrative staff and hiring “an army of good teachers.” …

Expect more top administrators in higher education to come from business and industry rather than the academy, the Hechinger Report says. The reasons: financial struggles, public pressure, and a lack of high-quality candidates from within academia.

Doug Ward is the associate director of the Center for Teaching Excellence and an associate professor of journalism. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

James Burns of Boston College uses a term I hadn’t heard before: “swirling students.”

Writing in The Evolllution, Burns says swirling students are those who move in and out of college, collecting a few hours here, a few hours there as they move toward a degree. They often have full-time or part-time jobs, families, health problems or financial challenges, he says.

class scene in lecture room with oil painting filter
Photo by Doug Ward

The best way to attract – and keep – those students is through personal attention, Burns says. Reach out to them as they apply and then follow up with personal meetings with advisors and faculty members. Providing flexibility through hybrid or online courses helps, as well, although online courses can seem impersonal to some students, he says.

It’s also important to identify these students early in the admissions process and recognize that they may need more attention than some other students. Burns recommends “high-touch advising” to help these students get settled.

His recommendations make sense, not just for the so-called swirling students but for all students. One of the keys to retention is helping students find connections to people and organizations at a college or university. They have to feel they belong. That means having faculty members and advisors who are approachable and available, and willing to listen and to help students.

That’s one characteristic of a great teacher, and it’s one more reason to value great teaching.

The benefits of online communication

One of the biggest challenges of teaching online is the lack of face-to-face communication.

Online discussions often lack the spark and spontaneity of in-person discussions, instructors lack the ability to read visual cues, and many students treat online discussion boards not as discussions but as obligatory places to dump notes from their reading.

Alexandra Samuel, vice president for social media at the technology company Vision Critical, gives a nod to those drawbacks but makes a solid argument for the benefits of communicating online. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Samuel applies that argument to internal corporate communication, but most of her observations transfer easily to education. She says online communication helps solve several problems:

  • Distance. Participants in a discussion don’t have to be in the same place.
  • Time. Participants don’t have to be on the same schedule or fill their calendars with meetings. Rather, they contribute to online discussions when they can, 24 hours a day.
  • Diversity of opinion. Online communication allows workers to get answers to questions sooner than they would if they had to wait for a specific person to arrive at a specific place. This also allows for a more diverse group of people to weigh in.
  • Styles of communication. In-person meetings work well for loquacious people but not so well for those who are more reserved. By relying on only in-person meetings, Samuel writes, “you’re missing out on the perspective and talents of people who like to mull on a problem before contributing, or that of people who communicate better visually or in writing than they do out loud.” She recommends using several different forms, including PowerPoint, Google Docs, mindmapping tools, and project management tools to make discussions engaging for a wider variety of people.

Samuel doesn’t address one crucial issue in online communication: relationship-building.

Building relationships can prove challenging in an online class, especially one with an abbreviated schedule. Instructors must  build rapport with online students through video, audio, email, discussion boards, announcements, and other means of communication. They must then maintain a presence throughout the course, and make themselves available to students.

Communication of any type succeeds, though, only when everyone – whether workers or students – participates willingly and meaningfully. That’s often easier in the workplace than in education, but not always.

Briefly …

As K-12 schools develop Common Core curricula, many are forgoing textbooks in favor of free online materials, The Hechinger Report says. … A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco gives a big thumbs-up to college degrees, saying that college graduates earn starting salaries that are $5,000 to $6,000 higher than high school graduates, with the gap growing to $25,000 after 15 years, Bloomberg Business reports. … The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that professors at some colleges have begun producing video trailers to promote their courses to students.

Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.