Student Learning Outcome Essay Common Ground

Recognizing the mismatch between a philosophy of holistic development and evaluation focused on external, quantitative criteria led Miami University's Honors and Scholars Program to revise its curriculum in accordance with student development theory.

PERHAPS like most great awakenings— cultural, political, personal—our program's great awakening began once we let go of our current approach to student learning and opened ourselves up to new possibilities. In retrospect, the growth began in November 2007 with an invitation from our colleague Marcia Baxter Magolda to be guest speakers for her advanced student development theory course. Asked to discuss how we align components of our program—the University Honors and Scholars Program (UHSP) at Miami University—with student development theory, we initially contemplated recounting our success stories, which illustrate how a solid theoretical foundation can shape practice and advance student learning. In 2002, staff and faculty affiliated with the UHSP had overhauled the program in order to more intentionally focus on promoting holistic development. Collectively, the group had created six student learning outcomes that spanned intellectual, personal, and relational dimensions of development; revised the program requirements to ensure that students engaged in enriched learning opportunities outside as well as inside the classroom; and designed an admission process to assess students on multiple cognitive and affective indicators. As Carolyn Haynes noted in a 2006 About Campus article, aligning the program with developmental goals had resulted in numerous benefits, including a more diverse and higher-quality pool of outstanding high school applicants, a greater willingness among students to actively seek out rigorous learning experiences, and a deeper sense of fulfillment among faculty who taught honors courses.

However, as we further prepared for our visit to the graduate course, we realized that we would provide a greater opportunity for students to share their expertise if we laid out our struggles rather than our successes. After all, while we felt we had made significant strides in the past few years, we remained intent on finding more effective ways to foster transformative teaching and learning. What better venue could we find in which to explore these issues than a class of graduate students who were familiar with our context and had studied these issues extensively? Thus, we decided to use the class visit as an opportunity not to share best practices but to solicit feedback on our program's deeply entrenched problems as well as some newly developed ideas for solving them. Little did we realize that the discussion that ensued in that classroom would propel the transformation of every aspect of our program.

We realized that we would provide a greater opportunity for students to share their expertise if we laid out our struggles rather than our successes.

We started the class session with an overview of our most pressing challenges. Like many high-ability students, Miami's honors students enter the university with impressive high school records of achievement inside and outside the classroom. Although they enter with credit for the majority of their introductory college courses, our program nevertheless requires them to complete at least seven honors courses, most of which meet introductory general education requirements and which they can take in any order. One concern is that despite the fact that our exit interviews show that students find many of their out-of-class and nontraditional learning experiences more transformational than traditional coursework, we give little to no credit for these types of opportunities. And although the percentage of our students who complete a thesis is slightly above the national norm, it is still lower than expected, given the high profile of our entering students. Thus, we have found ourselves in the unenviable predicament of encouraging students to meet course requirements that they really do not need, unintention-ally devaluing the out-of-class learning experiences that we know are key to their development, and recognizing that the coursework that we are providing does not seem to prepare or motivate students for substantive research or creative work. In short, our curriculum and program requirements are in critical need of reform.

To address some of these challenges, Haynes had drafted a curriculum composed of three increasingly challenging and complex tiers. She distributed handouts detailing this new curriculum to the graduate students serving as our consultants and then opened the floor for feedback. As our consultants leafed through the handouts, they began to ask questions and provide perspectives that pushed us to consider more deeply our beliefs and values in regard to the learning and development process.

“The learning outcomes appear weighted toward cognitive development,” observed one student.

“Good point,” Haynes responded. “My perspective as a faculty member makes me biased in that direction. We will need to work with our partners in student affairs to make sure the learning outcomes also address affective development.”

Others began to think about the implementation process. “In what ways will you ensure that students complete experiences in an appropriate sequence rather than in a random or unstructured manner?”

We explained, “We have not quite gotten to that level of detail yet. Any ideas?”

With each subsequent question and comment that our consultants offered, we discovered areas in which to improve and expand the draft for the new curriculum. Immersed in vibrant discussion, we hit the core of the issue when Baxter Magolda observed, “It strikes me that the current program requirements do not measure learning.” Her observation drew the class's collective attention to the milestones we in the UHSP use to gauge successful progress toward completing the program: five experiences completed with a cumulative grade point average of 3.2 or higher by the end of second year; eight experiences completed with a cumulative grade point average of 3.3 or higher by the end of third year; ten experiences completed with a cumulative grade point average of 3.5 or higher by graduation. Suddenly, we realized that the main hurdle to implementation of the new curriculum would be figuring out how to reframe what counts as successful progress. Although the thought of downplaying or perhaps even eliminating the grade point average requirement for an honors program seemed radical to us at first, this idea became increasingly attractive and spurred a turning point in our shift toward a learning-centered paradigm. With the graduate students' help, we came to see that our current program requirements served as external formulas for success that undercut the mission and vision of our program. In essence, while we espoused holistic development and intentional learning, we measured success with indicators that did not reliably tell us how students had grown intellectually, personally, and socially; even worse, the quantitative requirements provided no incentive or expectation that students decide for themselves the significance or sequence of learning experiences. We had been reinventing the means to the end—the curriculum and cocurriculum of our program—without acknowledging that the end in and of itself would need to change to better reflect and project our program's values. As we studied the mismatch between the means and the end, we recognized that, as Elliot Eisner states in The Enlightened Eye, “More than what educators say, more than what they write in curriculum guides, evaluation practices tell both students and teachers what count. How these practices are employed, what they address and what they neglect, and the form in which they occur speak forcefully to students about what [educators] believe is important” (p. 81).

Having identified the root cause of our deeply entrenched problems, we decided to use the rest of our time with our consultants to gain multiple perspectives and cutting-edge ideas on the following questions:

How can the UHSP requirements reflect that out-of-class learning opportunities are as important as in-class learning opportunities?

How can we shift our focus from assessing students' progress in terms of the number of experiences and toward assessing students' progress in terms of measurable learning outcomes?

How can we sequence learning experiences in a developmentally appropriate way, to help students move progressively toward effective scholarship and leadership within their fields?

The practice of assigning incoming students “common reading”—asking them to read the same book before they arrive on campus—has gained popularity in recent years as colleges and universities have sought new ways to improve the first-year experience. Like similar public reading initiatives sponsored by cities, libraries, and television and radio shows, campus common reading programs rest on a simple idea: that reading the same book brings people closer together as a community by creating common ground for discussion.

For the faculty and administrators who design orientation activities and first-year programs, this emphasis on building community has made common reading especially appealing. Assigning a book during the summer gives incoming students, who often come from very different backgrounds, a shared experience. At the same time, moderated discussions of the reading can bring the diversity of student viewpoints to the fore and provide an occasion for modeling the intellectual engagement with different ideas that is expected in college.

Yet although common reading programs share similar educational goals, the kinds of practices developed to support those goals vary widely from campus to campus. All students read the same book before arriving on campus—then what? Which practices of common reading programs are most effective? And what role does common reading play in larger, systematic efforts to create a unified experience for first-year students?

Key Elements of Common Reading Programs

A brief survey of campus Web sites shows that almost all common reading programs have been integrated into new-student orientations; most, in fact, focus primarily or exclusively on the orientation period. Drawing on students’ shared experience of the reading, these programs aim to ease the transition to college.

Small-group discussion is the cornerstone of the majority of common reading programs. At some point during orientation, most campuses divide new students into discussion groups, which typically are facilitated by volunteer faculty or staff. The content of group discussions depends upon the selected book, of course, but often the campus committees responsible for book selection intentionally choose common readings that broach issues they want to address during orientation. Many campuses pick books that enable discussion of U.S. and global diversity. For example, Albion College, according to its Web site, uses common reading to “begin student understanding of differences” and “provide an entry for students into the ideas of global citizenship.” Other popular themes, like “rites of passage” or “fitting in,” are chosen for their relevance to the period of transition in which new college students find themselves.

Some campuses seek to enrich orientation discussions by deepening students’ engagement with the reading process during the summer. Temple University is one of the many institutions that give students study questions to consider as they read. Other institutions, like Ball State University, host online forums where students can begin discussion of the reading before they arrive on campus. Some schools encourage students to write about the reading by holding a contest for the best new student essay (as Northern Arizona University does) or require students to write an essay about the book for an introductory course (as Otterbein College does).

Common reading programs also supplement small-group discussions with other orientation activities. Campuses sometimes introduce new students to library research by showing them how to locate resources related to the common reading, its author, and the issues it raises. Cultural events are another feature of many programs: films, performances, panel discussions, or exhibits related to the book may be part of orientation or part of first-year cocurricular programming. Author visits are particularly popular as the “culminating event” of such programming, and some schools make a point of selecting a book written by a living author who is willing to deliver a talk, reading, or lecture series on campus.

In addition to contributing to a sense of campus community, such orientation activities can communicate valuable messages to new students. According to Jodi Levine Laufgraben, associate vice provost at Temple University and author of Common Reading Programs: Going Beyond the Book (a monograph published this year by the National Resource Center for the First-Year Experience and Students in Transition), well-planned common reading programs signal “the importance of reading in college” and of “discussion and respect for diverse viewpoints.” More broadly, she says, activities like small-group discussion satisfy “the desire to have an academic component to orientation,” which often otherwise focuses exclusively on student life. In this sense, common reading programs—even when they exist solely as a part of orientation—can give students an early taste of academic life and set the tone for the first year of college.

From Orientation to the First Year

Campus common reading programs diverge significantly in their approach to the regular academic year. Some programs conclude entirely at the end of orientation, or offer only a few final cocurricular events during the fall, while others partially or fully integrate the reading into the first year.

Among campuses that seek to continue conversations about the reading beyond orientation, most encourage but do not require faculty to weave the reading into fall courses. This approach, because it leaves decisions about if and how a book will be used to individual faculty members, has the advantage of being easy to implement. It is most likely to be effective when campuses offer discussion guides or workshops to help faculty integrate the common reading into their classes. Baruch College, for example, provides faculty with a range of materials related to the reading—including general study questions as well as sample writing assignments, possible cross-curricular activities, and suggested further reading.

The danger of relying upon individual classes to extend discussion of the common reading is that, from a student’s perspective, such an approach may appear uncoordinated. Colleen Boff, the librarian for Bowling Green State University’s First-Year Experience, notes that this approach creates “potential for redundancy” between classes; it also leaves open the possibility that some students will never encounter the reading again after orientation.

Such problems can be at least partially addressed by improving communication among faculty and with students. Bowling Green’s common reading program thus is developing an online forum to facilitate the sharing of course materials related to the reading and make faculty more aware of what their colleagues are doing in the classroom. Other programs are helping students make informed course selections by publishing lists of courses that feature further discussion either of the common reading itself or of the social, political, and cultural issues it raises.

A few programs ensure that students will have a coherent experience of the reading by tying the selected book to a rotating first-year theme. At LaGuardia Community College, for example, students last year read Art Spiegelman’s Maus—a graphic novel that deals with the Holocaust and memory—as part of their exploration of “Rescue and Recovery.” This theme, in turn, permeated many aspects of the first year, from selected courses that incorporated the reading to cocurricular events that examined topics such as genocide and human rights. (The extensive online resources that LaGuardia developed to support activities related to the reading can be viewed at

Otterbein College, another school that links the common reading to an annual theme, has taken this approach further by fully integrating the book into required first-year courses. Such integration of the common reading into the curriculum presents challenges. Kate Porubcansky, who directs the Center for Student Involvement at Otterbein College, notes that “full campus buy-in” is essential if a single book is to be used extensively throughout the first year. And the selection of the book, which always must be done carefully, then becomes even more important: in addition to providing a compelling theme that can sustain discussion for a full year, the book must be “challenging but not overwhelming” and must lend itself to discussion in different disciplinary contexts, says Porubcansky. At Otterbein, where discussion of the reading occurs throughout the school’s highly interdisciplinary core curriculum, the chosen book must also provoke the kind of integrative learning that will enable students to make connections across courses.

What Works?

A common reading program such as the one developed by Otterbein College obviously serves very different purposes than a program that is limited to orientation week, and what makes a common reading program effective will vary with individual campus goals. Programs that are purposeful in developing activities that advance their specific aims for common reading are most likely to engage students in meaningful ways.

For programs that focus on orientation activities, the greatest challenge may be clearly communicating the purposes of common reading to students. Programs that end when orientation ends risk leaving some students wondering why they were assigned the reading in the first place—especially if activities related to the common reading seem only incidental or “tacked on” to orientation. Connecting small-group discussion with larger campus events and linking the selected book’s themes to the campus’s academic mission are ways of making common reading seem more relevant to students.

Programs that continue conversations about a common reading for an entire year, meanwhile, must be creative in developing strategies to sustain student interest. At their best, these kinds of programs—because they compel students to consider the same reading from different perspectives and through multiple lenses—can help students understand the interdisciplinarity and integration that are at the heart of liberal learning.

Common readings programs of all types are helping bridge divides on campus: between disciplines, between student life and academic affairs, between the orientation period and the first semester. Although some critics might lament that the growth of common reading programs has coincided with a decline of reading in general, many campuses are finding that these programs offer a practical way both of promoting reading as a shared intellectual experience and of enhancing the first year of college.

Michael Ferguson is an AAC&U senior staff writer and the associate editor of Peer Review.

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