The Personal and Intellectual Development of Students

The Personal and Intellectual Development of Students

We think we know some useful things about what happens to students on the way to a college degree. We still have to make some educated guesses as to why it happens, but perhaps research will gain more insight into causal factors in the next years. At this point, however, the sheer volume of information available has encouraged some pragmatically-inclined folks to try to condense and simplify the findings into something that teachers and administrators can and will read and use.

I confess that I am about to deliver yet another list – one that will not continue the upward count of things to do to improve education, but that will pull from the existing lists those items that I think are most relevant to the unique educational mission of the service academies. Since you know the educational characteristics of your academies far better than I, it may be presumptuous of me to attempt this feat, but breathe easy; my list has only six items. The first three are what might be called environmental factors that create the cumulative overall impact on the personal and intellectual development of students. These factors are most likely to affect attributes such as leadership and character. They are: 1) the coherence and reinforcement of a consistent educational message, 2) the socialization of the student into the values of the institution, and 3) the integration of education and experience. The second set of three items are instructional or classroom factors that promote the development of academic and intellectual skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, and effectiveness in communication. The three items in that list are: 1) the communication of high expectations, 2) the encouragement of active student learning, and 3) the provision of assessment and prompt feedback.

Environmental Factors: The educational environment of the service academies is probably one of the most potentially potent that exists on any campus in the United States. Students are immersed in a consistent and reinforcing environment from the day they arrive to the day they graduate. Thus, I have listed coherence and reinforcement of the educational message as first on my list of research-documented characteristics known to have an impact on students. This characteristic represents one of your most distinctive departures from the average college campus. First and perhaps most powerfully, you are residential institutions. Your students live on campus and are subject 24 hours a day to the influence of the people and environment of your academies. That, says the research, makes for a peculiar potency that affects values, attitudes, self-concept, intellectual orientation, and a host of other personal variables that contribute to what you might call leadership and character. With the possible exception of small residential colleges, most institutions have less opportunity for this sort of overall impact because they have less contact with their students. Nationwide, most of today’s college students commute to campus; 51 percent are part-time; many have jobs, financial worries, and other concerns that detract from the impact of college on them. Given your educational goal of developing “leaders of character,” what happens in your residence units is important. But I suspect that it is not as important as it is pictured in the research because most colleges have so little unified impact in the curriculum and elsewhere that dormitory life is likely to show up as especially important relative to other rather weak influences. On your campuses, residential living is but one of many possible reinforcers of your educational message.

Multiplying the impact of residential living is the potency of the tradition and culture that pervades service academies, plus what I perceive as a serious effort to structure the curriculum. Not only is the core curriculum one of the most concentrated and coherent that I know of, but the structure appears to reinforce the central mission of developing the continuing lifelong intellectual skills and attitudes that are widely sought in today’s society. A curriculum structured so that individual courses constantly reinforce one another in delivering a coherent message is, of course, likely to have far more impact than the scattered and unrelated messages delivered by so much of the higher education curriculum today. Closely related to course integration across the curriculum is the research finding that coherence and integration of the freshman year into the four-year experience is especially important – both in establishing expectations and in helping to bridge the transition from high school to college. Your required common experience in the freshman year is an orientation to the college experience far exceeding the half-day to full week of orientation offered by most colleges and universities.

The second environmental factor that has been found in the research to have an impact on students is socialization and collaboration: 1. Good practice encourages student-faculty contact, and 2. Good practice encourages cooperation among students. A lot is being made these days of the importance of informal out- of-class contact with faculty. Faculty represent to students the values and standards of the institution. Your overarching educational goal of developing leaders of character is enhanced when these qualities are displayed and conveyed in faculty/student interactions in and out of the classroom.

The third factor identified in the research as having an impact on students is the extent to which education and experience are integrated. Classroom learning is augmented and reinforced when there are multiple opportunities to see applications and to practice skills. The academies probably do a better than average job of reinforcing undergraduate academic learning with illustrations of applications and opportunities to apply them. In that regard you offer a professional education much like law, medicine, and education, which emphasize the application of knowledge. Most undergraduate education is notably short on application, with the exception of those few programs that offer internships or cooperative education.

These three broad findings from the research on college impact summarize very briefly what is known about the potency of the total college experience on students.

There is nothing very surprising about that conclusion. What may be surprising is that we had to go to so much effort to confirm what seems rather apparent, namely that the more deeply students are involved and engaged in the values and attitudes of a strong and visible college culture, the more effect it will have on them.

The environment of the service academies almost certainly demands more participation and involvement in the life of the campus than the average college these days. But I want to make a subtle distinction between participating and being actively engaged in a learning experience. To some extent, we can coerce participation by requiring that students attend class, live in the dorms, participate in certain campus events, and the like. We cannot, however, coerce the engagement of a person’s mind, and modern learning theory holds that people construct their own learning by actively engaging their minds in the experience. Compliance with regulations and expectations without active engagement may be quite futile as a learning experience; indeed it may lead to withdrawal rather than learning. So while the academies offer unusual opportunities for learning, there is no guarantee that students will use these opportunities to become actively engaged. In order for learning to occur, students must be actively constructing the experience in their own minds. Too much organization and structure done for the student may actually inhibit the work required for learning.

I want now to turn to what the research says about classroom learning — the kind of intentional learning that colleges are held accountable for. Three factors that appear consistently in the research on promoting effective learning are: 1) communicating high expectations, 2) encouraging active learning, and 3) providing assessment and prompt feedback.

The value of communicating high expectations goes considerably beyond the common-sense wisdom that you get about what you expect from students i.e. that expecting great things will lead to great performance. The optimum conditions for learning are in place when the task is realistic but attainable with effort. If the expectations are set too high, students concentrate more on avoiding failure than on accomplishing the task. If they are set too low, students are not challenged and fail to grow. So, much of the skill of communicating high expectations lies in accurate diagnosis of what students can learn with a reasonable amount of effort.

Encouraging active learning is the second classroom practice shown to have a positive impact on students. We hear a lot today about the necessity for active learning because active learning lies at the very heart of modern learning theory. It is certainly not a new idea. What students know when they graduate from your academies is not nearly as important as what they are capable of learning. That is why there is so much emphasis today on critical thinking, problem solving, analysis, and other learning skills that enable people to keep on learning throughout their lives.

Yet lecturing remains the teaching method of choice throughout higher education. Let me tell you about the discouraging results of some research done to determine what students learned from a lecture even under the most favorable of conditions. In this study, students were told that they would be tested immediately following the lecture; they were permitted to use their notes; they were even given a prepared summary of the lecture! Even with all this going for it, when the researchers examined students and their notebooks, they found that students carry away in their heads and in their notebooks not more than 39 percent of the lecture content. The test for immediate understanding was bad enough, but when students were examined one week later without the use of their notes, they could recall only 16 percent of the lecture material. Surely, there are more efficient ways to teach and to learn. This does not mean, I hasten to add, that all lecturing is bad. There are lectures that encourage people to think, to see relationships that they had not seen before, to test their knowledge against that being presented – in short, to become actively engaged in thinking. The criticism of lectures is primarily directed against those where the lecturer is more actively engaged than the students are.

Most of us know how deeply we become involved in thinking when we are preparing a lecture. If the students were only half as involved, we would be grateful indeed. I think that the most fundamental contribution of the intensive research on learning over the past 25 years is the simple fact that students must be mentally engaged in order to learn. New information must be worked on to fit into the cognitive structure of a student even as the cognitive structure grows and changes to accommodate new knowledge.

I have presented these six principles of learning as the principles that I think are probably most salient at the service academies. The latter three concerned with classroom learning are, of course, common to all classrooms in all kinds of institutions. And it is those that I wish to explore further today. In particular, I want to talk about what you can do as teachers to improve your teaching and your students’ learning.

For all our talk about the advantages of collaborative learning, students don’t automatically know how to reap the benefits of cooperative learning. For students, just having to write out the benefits of the group sessions is a gentle reminder of the two-sided obligation of collaborative learning. If the improvement of learning is a national priority for higher education in the next years, teachers and students need to be primary players in assessment, and they need to be able to use the results of the assessment to improve their own performance. Now, what is it that they need to know?

They need to know what and where the target is, and they need prompt feedback on whether they are hitting it or not. Classroom Assessment can be targeted to provide feedback on whether students are accomplishing the goals that the teacher has in mind, but Classroom Assessment can also provide feedback on where student arrows are going astray. Are student arrows hitting the barn to the left of the target, the ground in front, or perhaps students are scattering arrows all over the place.

Some students might think it was to understand a relationship or to critique an argument. Such observations tie into some interesting research being done in the US right now on deep learning versus surface learning. Surface learning refers to learners’ attempts to reproduce information provided by others (often with the least possible effort), whereas a deep approach to learning refers to learners’ attempts to understand and apply new information. We would call this critical thinking. The conversations are lively, and the questions these classroom teachers raise and the observations they make about their own teaching experiences furnish ample grist for any number of interesting research projects. Sharing information and insights via publications or the Internet is itself a short-term reward.

Another source of useful information that is free to Classroom researchers – and rarely available to professional researchers – comes to office hours in the form of students with questions. Our usual response as teachers, is to find out what they need explained and set about explaining it – often in the same way that did not work in the assignment or lecture. But that is the response of the teacher. The response of the researcher is different. The researcher is more likely to listen than to talk – to probe for insights about learning, to try to understand where the “disconnect” is between the presentation and the student’s understanding. Sometimes, given half a chance to analyze their own learning, a student will be remarkably insightful and articulate about a learning problem.


Jeff C. Palmer is a teacher, success coach, trainer, Certified Master of Web Copywriting and founder of Jeff is a prolific writer, Senior Research Associate and Infopreneur having written many eBooks, articles and special reports.



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