Accepting Responsibility for Student Learning
George R. Boggs

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Accepting Responsibility for Student Learning
George R. Boggs
Palomar College

The time has come to change the mission of higher education in America. The paradigm that has defined our colleges and universities no longer fits. To be sure, higher education is one of the great successes of our country. But the current instruction-research-service paradigm is too limiting. There is a disturbing feeling that our colleges and universities are not as effective as they need to be.
        The world is very different from the one in which colleges and universities evolved. Technology has transformed the way people do business and the way they live. It has extended the research capacity of higher education. Yet it does not seem to have changed educational practices on campuses to any great extent. The college students of the early 1900s do not have a lot in common with today's students, yet classroom practices are probably not much different.
        Every year, the student population is becoming more diverse, bringing into question whether traditional instructional methods still work—if they ever really did. A growing number of students speak a language other than English at home, making it difficult for them to understand classroom presentations, particularly in lecture classes. Many students have part-time or full-time jobs. They may arrive at class tired from work or may have to juggle their class schedules so they can work the hours they need to support themselves. Many have family responsibilities, often as single heads of households, and are trying to improve their lives and their children's through education. Others may have been out of the workforce for some time, or they may be changing careers either voluntarily or as the result of layoffs. Some have physical disabilities that require accommodation. Many of our students are returning to study after some time away from an academic environment and may feel ill at ease attending classes with much younger students or alienated by a college environment that has changed since their earlier student days. Unfortunately, many of our students are not academically prepared to succeed in college-level courses.
        It is not just the fact that the student population has changed; social and political pressures are also mounting. State legislators and governors across the nation have responded to fiscal exigency by reducing funding support to higher education. There is a constant call for our institutions to "do more with less," to improve efficiency and effectiveness, and to be more accountable. Congress, alarmed by high rates of defaults on student loans, increasing incidents of campus violence, and low percentages of students who complete programs, has increased federal reporting and regulation. Now that there is a growing concern about access and affordability, policymakers may soon be examining student tuition and its use by colleges and universities. Employers still complain that the country's workforce is inadequately trained, and corporations spend billions of dollars on employee training. If higher education in the United States is to survive in this challenging environment, it must change.
        In its 1993 report, An American Imperative: Higher Expectations for Higher Education, the Wingspread Group pointed to a disturbing and dangerous mismatch that exists between what American society needs of higher education and what it is receiving. Nowhere is the mismatch more obvious than in the quality of undergraduate education provided on many campuses. Institutional efforts that should be focused on the needs of students are instead channeled toward other institutional interests, often for the convenience or special interest of educators.
        Some of America's most respected educational leaders, seeing the need for change, have urged colleges to give more attention to undergraduate teaching, to improve institutional effectiveness, to institute Total Quality Management techniques, to become more customer-responsive, and to make better use of technology in teaching. However well-intentioned these recommendations are, they are not likely to have any significant or lasting effect on higher education unless we shift to a paradigm in which colleges and universities accept responsibility for student learning.
        Although the research function of higher education is focused on results, colleges and universities are frequently criticized for their lack of educational accountability data. The few studies that have been done often reveal disappointing graduation or program completion rates, increased time to degree, and a poor record of success with nontraditional students. These findings may not be surprising to educational researchers, but they are beginning to alarm the public, especially in the face of rapidly increasing costs. Not only should the educational mission of higher education receive a higher priority, it should be redefined.
        We need a new paradigm for the educational function of colleges and universities, one that defines them as learning institutions. The primary mission of any college or university should be student learning, and effectiveness should be measured by learning outcomes. The most important people on any campus are the learners. Everyone else is there to facilitate and support student learning. Faculty members, librarians, counselors, administrators, trustees, custodians, and secretaries are all important in achieving this mission.
        Under the current paradigm—call it the "Instruction Paradigm"—colleges and universities are responsible only for providing instruction, not for student learning. Responsibility for learning is the student's. Some teachers go so far as to measure quality and rigor by the percentage of students who drop out of their courses. Colleges and universities are more concerned about which programs and courses to offer than about creating environments conducive to learning. Evaluation of teachers is based on presentation skills, not on how well students learn. Institutional leaders are more concerned about access for diverse groups of students than about their success.
        Under the new paradigm—the "Learning Paradigm"—colleges will be responsible for student learning. Students, of course, will remain responsible for their own learning, but that does not relieve the institution of its own responsibility. Everyone on campus should be evaluated based on contributions to student learning, and the focus should be on continuous improvement of the environment for learning. Institutional leaders should be concerned about success for a diverse group of students, and institutions should meet goals for improving learning outcomes.
        Identification with the process of instruction rather than with the outcome of student learning serves to limit higher education to rather traditional methods, usually lectures. Anything that falls outside traditional practices is not easily accepted. If American railroad companies had viewed their mission as transportation in general rather than just rail transportation, we might see some different names on airplanes and truck trailers today.
        The structures of the Instruction Paradigm are too limiting. Classes are usually scheduled to last for a semester or quarter. They all start at the same time of year and end at the same time of year. The fifty-minute lecture period is the predominant delivery method. If technology is used, it usually supplements the traditional delivery. Distance education methods are suspect. Unusual methods such as team teaching or collaborative learning often encounter a hostile, rather than a supportive, environment.
        As institutions shift from the Instruction Paradigm to the Learning Paradigm, the criteria for success will change. Successful colleges and universities today are those with the best input and process measures. Enrollment growth, high participation rates, revenue growth, curriculum expansion, and acquisition of physical resources are seen as indicators of a successful institution in the Instruction Paradigm. In the Learning Paradigm, however, institutions that have identified goals for learning and student success outcomes and that can document achievement will be the most successful. Rather than focusing on the quality of entering students, these institutions will be concerned about the quality of exiting students and how much those students have learned.
        Under the Instruction Paradigm, faculty are primarily lecturers. Students are often competitive and individualistic. Faculty members carry out their functions independently of one another. Teachers classify, sort, and grade students. In contrast, under the Learning Paradigm, faculty will be designers of learning methods and environments. They will be managers, promoters, and facilitators of student learning in much the same way as a coach facilitates the very best performance of an athlete. They and their students will work in teams with each other and with other campus staff. The teacher's job will be to develop every student's competencies and talents.
        The Learning Paradigm does not automatically define the lecture method as bad. Most students have experienced both great and not-so-great lecturers. Whereas in the Instruction Paradigm lectures are the norm, the Learning Paradigm will require that they prove their value in promoting student learning against other methods. The methods that are most effective will be the ones to be supported. Already there is a lot of research to indicate that more active methods of learning are generally more effective than sitting in a lecture hall.
        Societal and political pressures are forcing colleges and universities to become more productive, to do more with less. Under the Instruction Paradigm, there are some very real limits to increasing efficiency. Productivity for our institutions is defined under the Instruction Paradigm as cost per hour of instruction per student. The usual measure is some form of weekly student contact hours per full-time-equivalent faculty member. Under the Instruction Paradigm, contact hours between students and faculty—at least during census week—are what count. The problem with this measure of productivity is that there are only two ways to increase it: increasing class sizes or increasing faculty teaching loads. Both of these threaten the quality of student learning.
        Under the Learning Paradigm, the definition of productivity will become the cost per unit of learning per student. Funding should, at least partially, be based upon student learning outcomes. There may be many ways of increasing student learning that do not involve increasing class sizes or increasing teaching loads. Appropriate uses of technology, for example, might increase student learning even at a decreased cost.
        Changing the way educators view their roles will not be easy. They have invested a tremendous amount of time and energy in the current paradigm and may be resistant or blind to the need to change. Dominant paradigms are not easily changed. Faculty members have been trained by example that they are to provide instruction and to grade students. Administrators hire and evaluate teachers based upon how well they present material. College policies often make it difficult for faculty to try new methods. Staff members have probably never been told that their jobs are to create an environment conducive to student learning. Students themselves may be resistant to change, having spent twelve years in an educational system that required them to be passive in class and to be competitive rather than cooperative outside of class.
        We will also have to deal with entrenched systemic support for the Instruction Paradigm. For example, society's outward belief that the business of higher education is instruction is reflected in the way institutions are funded. Higher education financing is, except in a very few states, based on number of students in traditional classrooms and not on learning outcomes. Colleges and universities are not even very good yet at measuring learning outcomes; it has never been relevant to the instruction mission.
        Despite the barriers, educational leaders must begin to advocate the Learning Paradigm. The limitations defined by the traditional methods of the Instruction Paradigm will not be accepted much longer, and educators rather than legislators should establish learning outcome goals. This is a challenge that educational leaders must accept.

Bibliographic citation for the paper copy of this article:

Boggs, G. R. "Accepting Responsibility for Student Learning." On the Horizon, 1998, 6(1), 1, 5-6.