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It is hard to believe that summer is winding down … at least on college campuses. We have recently completed two weeks of enrichment programs for new students. Student athletes arrive in a few days to begin their pre-season training. And freshmen arrive in less than three weeks.

The return of students brings an excitement and enthusiasm as the core mission of the College … teaching and learning … takes place within our community of scholars and learners. But students also present challenges as a few exhibit behaviors that are inconsistent with college values and dangerous for their own well-being. One of these is binge drinking.

Binge drinking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as consuming five or more drinks in less than two hours (four or more drinks for women). Most binge drinkers are not alcohol dependent. Rather, it is a behavior practiced periodically and sometimes regularly by the young and the old. For example, one in six adults binge drinks about four times per month. And for colleges, the following statistic creates a major concern. Approximately 90% of the alcohol consumed by men and women under the age of 21 is in the form of binge drinking. In other words, when they drink, they often binge.

All colleges have programs and services to address this issue. At freshmen orientation, for example, I give a talk to all new students where I graphically describe the effects of binge drinking on their personal and academic lives. We also provide training and education programs in the residence halls and through our counseling and health centers. We sponsor and host events regularly where students can (hopefully) see that they can socialize and have fun without alcohol. But the reality of binge drinking remains.

About two weeks ago, the Boston Globe ran a feature story entitled, “Dartmouth College Tackles Binge Drinking Culture.”  I typically look for ideas about addressing this problem in hopes that we can improve our programs, better serve the needs of our students, and ultimately reduce the number of binge drinkers on our campus.

According to this article, Dartmouth has experienced a significant drop in the number of students requiring hospitalization with blood alcohol levels of 0.25% (three times the legal limit to drive). This past year, 31 students were hospitalized. Two years earlier, that number was 80.

The key to the Dartmouth program is peer driven initiatives. They have increased their focus on student to student education programs and more individualized counseling and education. One idea that makes a good deal of sense to me is called the Green Team at Dartmouth College.

Dartmouth pays students to attend parties in small groups and to remain sober. These students look for ways to help other students who are drinking to excess or acting in ways that can be dangerous for them and others. They do not report these students to authorities, but rather try to help them by offering them something to eat, asking that they not be served additional drinks, and/or finding friends to take care of them for the rest of the evening. They speak to women about the risks of being with/dating a binge drinker. These actions are done as discretely as possible and seem to be well received.

No one expects to eradicate binge drinking. Sadly, alcohol consumption is as endemic to college life as it is to social life throughout America. Just attend a sporting event or a concert and watch the levels of alcohol consumption.

But we can do better in our efforts to help students make good decisions about their lives. We will always need enforcement and sanctions, but peer led programs may prove more effective. Maybe I should have a student give my speech at Orientation this year. I am willing to try anything that works.

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

This is an interesting time on a college campus. We are in the midst of welcoming our new students through summer orientation and enrichment programs. Student athletes report to campus in less than two weeks. The new semester begins in less than a month.

At the same time, we are actively recruiting the freshman class for Fall 2014. High school students are visiting the campus every day and admissions counselors are preparing for their travel and communications activities.

One of the great mysteries of the college search process is why students prefer one school over another. Is it the impression of the physical campus? Is it the tour guide? Is it the curriculum or academic opportunities? Is it the athletic or cocurricular program? Is it the faculty or staff? The answer is “yes” to all of them.

Last week I conducted a class on leadership for the new students in our summer enrichment program. As they introduced themselves, it was no surprise that most of the students were from New England with a smaller number from New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and beyond.

While there is no common answer as to why a prospective student prefers a specific school, a recent ACT report helps us to understand the type of student who is interested in attending a college further away from home.

ACT, formerly known as American College Testing, is one of the two standardized tests administered nationally to high school students and used by many colleges and universities as one of their admissions acceptance variables (the other test is the College Board’s SAT [Scholastic Aptitude Test]). In addition to the ACT exam, ACT conducts research and provides other assessment resources for all levels of education.

ACT analyzed data and found that there were two clear correlations. First, the higher a student scored on a standardized exam (like the ACT or the SAT), the further away from home they travelled to attend college. Second, the more education that their parents have, the further away from home their children go to attend their higher education experience. Why?

It is not because higher achieving students want to get away from their parents or more highly educated parents want to send their children away. In fact, parents typically prefer their children to attend college closer to home.

The reasons seem to be related to knowledge, opportunity and confidence. There is evidence that higher achieving students and parents with more education tend to know more about the college admissions process, are aware of more colleges and have the awareness and skill to conduct better research on academic programs, scholarships, etc.

These students and families also tend to have the financial resources needed to both visit colleges further away and to attend these institutions. Finally, they also have more confidence in being away from home and letting their children be further away.

In the end, the college decision process should be about fit. Whether near or far, big or small, it should be the institution that best serves the educational needs and personal values of the student. And there is no single answer for every prospective student.

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

I want to conclude my discussion of the report from the Commission on the Humanities and the Social Sciences entitled, The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a Vibrant, Competitive, and Secure Nation, with some comments about why I think this report is so important.

Some have said that there is nothing new in this report. That the recommendations are all fairly self-evident and simply restate commonly understood values and learning objectives of education. For those who believe this, I would suggest that they may be unaware of the current state of education and the slow but persistent erosion of the emphasis on the humanities and the social sciences.

Education at both the K-12 and higher education levels is moving towards a skill-based system where the goal is preparation for professional careers. Research is increasingly focused on STEM. While this is certainly valuable, it is not sufficient. This report is important because it emphasizes the need for both balance and a holistic approach.

Education must include the sciences and the arts. Education must be both practical and aesthetic. Education must help to form the whole person. Education must help students to live personal lives of fulfillment and citizenship as well as becoming globally competitive. Education must engender civility and acceptance so that we can live in diversity and harmony.

Perhaps the reason this report resonates the most with me is because of its focus on leadership. As I referenced two weeks ago, the report asks and answers a very important question: “Who will lead America into a bright future?”   Their answer, “Citizens who are educated in the broadest possible sense, so that they can participate in their own governance and engage with the world. An adaptable and creative workforce. Experts in national security, equipped with the cultural understanding, knowledge of social dynamics, and language proficiency to lead our foreign service and military through complex global conflicts. Elected officials and a broader public, who exercise civil political discourse, founded on an appreciation of the ways our differences and commonalities have shaped our rich history. We must prepare the next generation to be these future leaders.”

From its very founding, this country has been built on the notion that our democracy depends on “citizens who can think critically, understand their own history, and give voice to their beliefs while respecting the views of others.” As this report emphasizes, these qualities are not innate, they must be taught. And in our current society, they are so rarely modeled in public discourse and government that education must overcome the perception that incivility and partisan, ad hominem behavior is acceptable.

As this report concludes, “(The humanities and the social sciences) go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future. They are necessary and they require our support in challenging times as well as in times of prosperity. They are critical to our pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness as described by our nation’s founders. They are The Heart of the Matter.”  I agree.

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

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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.)