President's Blog


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It is interesting the way certain perceptions are difficult to change, even if the perceptions are different than reality. A case in point is the national perception of Congress. Let me explain.

While Washington continues to be a place where decisions come slowly and compromise is rare, there have been some signs of progress in recent weeks. For example, we have witnessed bipartisan cooperation on the issues of immigration and student financial aid. Regardless of your position on the recent revelations of the government’s collection of phone data, I was encouraged to see that the differences of opinion were bipartisan as well.

But a recent Gallup poll would suggest that if what I say is accurate (i.e., reality), it is not reflected in public opinion (i.e., perception). For the 45th consecutive month, the approval rating of Congress is less than 20%.

These results are based on telephone interviews conducted during the first week of June. The study reflects a random sample of 1,529 adults (18 years and older) living in every state and the District of Columbia.

When you read the study carefully, the specific results provide a more complex picture. For example, for those who disapprove of Congress, the majority (59%) do so because of their perceptions of partisan gridlock or ineffectiveness. These levels of disapproval are primarily related to the assessment of “party gridlock/bickering/not compromising” and “not getting anything done/not making decisions.”  When asked to assess Congress’s actions on specific issues, the disapproval numbers are quite low (budget deficit/spending – 6%; healthcare reform – 2%; immigration reform – 2%).

The point is that negative perceptions may relate more to “gridlock fatigue” than to concern about any specific policy issue. This is more true of respondents who self-identified as Democrats than those who self-identify as Republicans. More Republicans cite concerns about the budget and healthcare, but a majority of both groups express overall disapproval.

Another fascinating aspect of this study is that a majority of respondents approve of the performance of their own Congressional representatives.  As Gallup has revealed in prior studies, this correlates to the extremely high percentage of House and Senate members who get re-elected … over and over again.

But one has to wonder why the sum of the parts does not equal the whole? It would seem that this relates to the divided leadership (Democratic Senate and Republican House) where individual members are held less responsible than the entire institution.

I believe that there is some progress being made in bipartisan leadership. I wonder what it will take to convince others. Or maybe … this is not reality … but just my perception!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

I am waiting for the course evaluations from the students who took my leadership class this past Spring semester. Like most professors, I read these assessments carefully so that I can try to improve my classes in the future. Even after 40+ years of teaching, I know I can get better.

Obviously, it is gratifying when students express high degrees of satisfaction with the course. It is especially rewarding when students say that they learned a great deal and the course met or exceeded their expectations. The word that still disappoints me the most is “boring.”

I was intrigued by a review of an article entitled, “Fluency Can be Deceiving: Instructor Fluency Increases Perceptions of Learning without Increasing Actual Learning.” Published in the Psychonomic Bulletin and Review, the article summarizes the research of psychologists at Iowa State University and Williams College. I found the complete article and found it fascinating.

The research study compared both the perceptions of learning and the actual learning of students who participated in the same lecture. In one case, the instructor “stood upright, maintained eye contact, and spoke fluidly without notes” (i.e., highly fluent). In the other case, the same material was presented by an instructor who “slumped, looked away and spoke haltingly with notes.”

After each lecture, the students were asked to predict how much they learned from the class session. Specifically, they were asked to predict how much of the content they would recall at a later date.

As you would expect, the students in the “highly fluent” class indicated a much higher expectation of learning. Equally predictable, the students in this class rated their instructor significantly higher indicating that the instructor was more prepared and more effective. But while this instructor was assessed as being less boring, “fluency” did not appreciably impact learning.

Students in both classes were subsequently tested on the content of the lecture. The lecture involved a scientific concept that was explained by the instructor. The actual knowledge (i.e. learning) was virtually the same. When these results were shared, the students who had participated in the more interesting and exciting lecture were both surprised and disappointed. They expected to do better.

The only conclusion reached by these researchers is that student perceptions are based more on “lecture fluency” than “actual learning.”  I have never met a student who didn’t want their professors to be engaging, interesting and dynamic. To be labeled “boring” is never a compliment.

But the most important result of teaching is student learning. And this should be the focus of pedagogical improvement. In commenting on this research, Eric Mazur, Balkanski Professor of Physics and Applied Physics at Harvard, wrote, “With a better presenter it might seem like you are taking more in, but it doesn't mean that anything has actually been learned -- it doesn't mean there has been an 'Aha!' moment."  

Mazur is an advocate of teaching through “peer instruction.”   In this method, there is more questioning of students during every class to determine more readily if they are both understanding and learning.

Despite this research, I still do not want to be assessed as a boring instructor. But I will work harder in the Fall to make sure my students actually learn!

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

Now that Commencement is over, the logical concern is the career opportunities for graduates. The Center for Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University continues to provide helpful data and analyses.

Its recent report, “Hard Times: College Majors, Unemployment and Earnings” is based on the analysis of the 2010 and 2012 census data. The study looks at the employment of recent graduates (ages 22-26), experienced graduates (ages 30-54) and those holding a graduate degree.

As always, those with a bachelor’s degree or more typically do much better than those with less education in terms of both finding a job and earning a significantly higher income. And those with a graduate degree do even better. Overall unemployment rates during this time period were 9-10%. College graduates over the age of 25 averaged unemployment rates of 4.6-4.7%. But there is more to the story.

As it has been in the past several years, the employment picture is mixed for college graduates. A simple summary is provided by the Center’s director, Anthony P. Carnevale, who co-authored this report. "It matters what you major in, and it matters if you get a graduate degree. It's the same point we make over and over again."

First, here is the good news. Recent graduates with the lowest unemployment rates (6%) majored in nursing (4.8%), elementary education (5.0%), physical fitness, parks and recreation (5.2%), chemistry (5.8%) and finance (5.9%).

The highest unemployment rates (all above 11%) were found for those majoring in information systems (14.7%), architecture (12.8%), anthropology (12.6), film, video, photography arts (11.4%) and political science (11.1%).

The report provides an explanation for these results. In general, for example, graduates who are able to “create technology” do better than those prepared to “use technology.” In other cases, the opportunities for jobs mirror the economic trends and demographics. Health care and education needs are expanding because of both growth in programs and services and aging populations of current employees. While the housing market is beginning to rebound, the lack of growth in new homes relates to the lack of need for new architects.

The variance in income is also significant. Recent graduates in the field of engineering do the best (median salary of $57,000) while those in the arts earn far less (median salary of $25,000).

The study also demonstrates a correlation between employment/income and experience/advanced education. Experienced graduates in all fields have lower unemployment rates and higher incomes. Those holding a graduate degree do the best in both employability and income.

For years, college advisors have encouraged students to follow their passion. It is important for students to pursue degrees and ultimate employment opportunities in fields of interest. But there are practical realities to consider. And reports like this help advisors to better understand the world these recent graduates will enter. Students may choose a life as a struggling artist, but may find a career in education, for example, a better choice.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

With Commencement season winding down, the media seems intent on making sure no one gets too optimistic or too positive about life after college. Newspapers and TV reports are replete with stories about levels of student debt, the paucity of good paying jobs and the low graduation rates. While there are certainly challenges for some graduates, the fact is that many will do just fine.

I was heartened last week to find a report that provided good news about higher education. In fact, it did so by reporting findings that seem to rebuke a widely held assumption since 2011 that too little learning actually takes place on college campuses.

In 2011, a book entitled, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, received a great deal of national and international attention. Using data from the College Learning Assessment (CLA), the authors of Academically Adrift concluded that students had very little growth in learning during their undergraduate years. The CLA is a national assessment tool that measures critical thinking.

At a recent meeting of the American Enterprise Institute, the authors of the CLA, who work for the Council for Aid to Education, released the results of two more recent studies, “Does College Matter? Measuring Critical-Thinking Outcomes Using the CLA” and “Three Principle Questions About Critical Thinking Tests.”  These results paint a very different picture from Academically Adrift.

According to this new research, critical thinking increases significantly between the freshman and senior years. Their data demonstrates twice the level of improvement than reported in the 2011 study. While the authors of this most recent research were quick to explain that the variance in results may have something to do with the research methodologies used in the various studies, the results seem clear and irrefutable. College does matter and students do learn!

The point of all this is that a college education is neither uniform nor totally predictable. Some students learn very little and others grow and develop exponentially. Some students graduate with large debt and others graduate debt-free or with manageable loans. Some students search unsuccessfully for jobs while others move seamlessly from graduation to full and fulfilling employment in their chosen field.

Higher education is not perfect. But in my experience, the benefits far outweigh the challenges and a vast majority of students experience real value in their lives intellectually, socially, morally and developmentally.

I understand that the headline, “College Graduate Debt Ridden and Unemployed” sells more papers than “College Graduate Happy and Successful,” but the second description is more accurate.

Colleges and universities are replete with dedicated faculty members and administrators working hard every day to improve the quality of teaching and learning. Colleges and universities are packed with students who arrive with hopes and dreams and study hard to achieve success. It’s OK to celebrate this. And the evidence can be found in research studies and through Commencement ceremonies.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

This past weekend, Anna Maria College celebrated its 2013 Commencement. Colleges and universities across the country are holding similar celebrations as the Class of 2013 moves from the classroom to the world. I have attended many, many commencement exercises as an educator and a parent. In many ways, they are always the same. And in my opinion, that’s perfect!

 Commencement exercises follow a standard pattern. Although the actual verbiage may change, the graduates are always encouraged to live life to its fullest and to make a difference in the world. For example, this year’s AMC student speaker told her fellow graduates, “… remember that you can make a difference in the world. You should make a difference in the world. You must. Because by coming this far, you already have.”  The speaker was a remarkable young woman who is passionate about her future career in education … working with and advocating for children.

The message of our scheduled Commencement speaker encouraged our graduates with the following, “You are a unique person, with a promising destiny. Live in the now. Listen carefully to the questions arising within you. They are the source of the responses to your innermost dreams.  Embrace life and live it to the full.”  Good advice from a retired Bishop who has served others his entire life.

Commencements can always be expected to provide some lighthearted moments as well. Invariably, there are students who decorate their mortar boards and there are the inevitable shout outs to and from families as graduates receive their diplomas.

This was AMC’s commencement … this was every college’s commencement … this year … last year … and next year. But I wouldn’t change a thing!  Because the fact of the matter is that each year we graduate a new class of students who have the potential to change the world … to make a difference. If not these graduates, then who will dedicate their time and talent to address the challenges of society and to make our world a better place for all of us?

And despite the fact that many challenges remain daunting, these graduates … every year’s graduates … give me hope. In the past few days, I spent time speaking individually with many members of the Class of 2013. They are future doctors and nurses, social workers and teachers, law enforcement professionals and lawyers. Some plan to go into the world of commerce and industry, some even want to work in higher education.

But they all have dreams, ambitions and a strong desire to make a difference. They are not totally altruistic. They need to earn an income and pay off their loans. But their aspirations are replete with their values. And whatever their professional goals, they understand their responsibility to serve the Common Good.

Commencements are filled with formulaic platitudes … perhaps. But they are also filled with hope and inspiration for the future. On Commencement Day every year, I am convinced that the world will be a better place.

Congratulations to the Class of 2013. Best wishes and Godspeed.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)