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Posted at 2:40 PM ET, 01/27/2011

Lumina's Degree Profile: A co-author's view

By Daniel de Vise

Here is a guest post by Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a 1,200-member nonprofit concerned with the quality, vitality and public standing of undergraduate liberal education. Schneider was on a four-person team that drafted the Lumina Foundation's Degree Profile.

Students have heard the message that college is now the route to a middle-class life. But as the recently released study Academically Adrift reveals all too starkly, many college students are not making the most of their education. They're getting a credential. But not an education.
Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa's longitudinal probe of students' skill gains over four years of college, shows that many students graduate without the competencies that virtually every employer considers essential: analytical reasoning, communication and problem-solving. The book has gotten a lot of coverage, but its fundamental message was no surprise. Earlier studies and a raft of employer surveys had already delivered the same bad news.

What Harvard's Derek Bok too politely termed Our Underachieving Colleges (2006) is a red flag for a society that depends on brain power to fuel the economy and help solve festering societal problems. This week, however, the Lumina Foundation for Education steps forth with a bold proposed solution: a twenty-first century effort to define the learning outcomes or "competencies" that students need to master -- whatever their major -- as they move from the associate's level to the bachelor's level to a master's degree. Lumina also turns a spotlight on what students actually do with their academic time in college. The Degree Profile calls for a new regimen of practice and constantly "applied learning" to help students get back on course.

Lumina's proposed "Degree Qualifications Profile" provides students, the public and faculty alike with a roadmap for essential learning. Drawing from hundreds of on-campus discussions across the U.S., the profile outlines the competencies students should develop and demonstrate through their specialized studies (the major), through broad, integrative studies (general education redefined) and by constant practice of intellectual skills such as analytical inquiry, use of information resources, engaging diverse perspectives, quantitative analysis and communication to different audiences.

The Degree Profile underscores the significance of "applied" learning, students' ability to integrate their learning and apply it directly to problems that that matter in the economy and in global and civil society. As one of the team that drafted the profile, I say with certainty that none of us had ever heard of the Asian Tiger mother (and none of us would support the more abusive parts of her regimen). But her contention that constant practice is the key to any achievement stands at the core of the Degree Profile. Students learn what they do.

The central idea -- our proposed solution to the reality that many students really are adrift -- is that students should apply their learning to real problems while in college -- through projects, research, creative work, internships, involvement in community-based debates and problem-solving. Students should work on tasks, in other words, that both develop the skills they need and show what they actually can do with their knowledge. They should prepare in college for their roles in the economy but also for their roles as citizens in the world's most powerful democracy. And they should have lots of opportunities to reflect on the implications of their choices, with faculty mentors, and with others who hold different points of view.

Think of the Degree Profile as a map with a set of alternative routes. There are many ways that students can achieve the expected competencies -- depending on what they choose to study in college -- but whatever the route they choose, certain kinds of knowledge, skill, applied learning and civic problem-solving need to be acquired by the end of the journey-and demonstrated as the basis for the degree.

This simple idea turns assessment on its head. Using assessment tools that have become available through new technology just in the past three years, faculty can examine students' actual work and see how well they are developing and demonstrating the expected competencies. Faculty can discover--before it's too late -- that Suzie is doing almost no writing; that Rafe (who took the one required math course as a duel enrollment while in high school) hasn't done a single assignment using quantitative analysis since he entered college; and that neither of them knows much of anything about the global developments that are creating such turbulence in the economy and in democracy. Faculty already know that a lot of students are just coasting through. Now they can take action to reverse that downward course.

Reviewing students' progress online while they are still in school, faculty advisors can make sure that students start practicing what they need to know. Focusing scarce resources on students' most urgent needs, faculty can ensure that students' diplomas reflect real accomplishment when they finally cross that stage at graduation.

The Degree Profile provides guidance for students, policy makers and society alike. But its real challenge is to the faculty. You already know what you think students need to learn, the Degree Profile suggests -- and your expectations have been written into this new framework. So now, across all courses, turn your attention to the kinds of assignments you give students, and how well those assignments work to build students' ability to tackle complex, unscripted problems.

The Degree Profile challenges higher education to break free of curricular standards that were set in the age of the assembly line - time-in-class, course credits, multiple-choice, fill-in-the bubble tests. Take seriously, it says, what all the research (including Adrift) plainly shows: students learn best when they apply their knowledge to real questions, questions whose significance is apparent but whose solution is not. When students do this kind of work, they make real gains on essential outcomes. They're more likely to stay in school and not drop out. But too many students are just doing busy-work.

Lumina intends to make major grants to accreditors and to consortia of colleges, universities and community colleges to take this twenty-first century Degree Qualifications Profile from "proposed" to tested and finally enacted. Improvements are expected and will be invited.

Lumina leaders know -- and the public should know as well -- that foundations played a key role nearly a century ago in making "the credit hour" the law of the academic land. In the twenty-first push to move from course credits that mean nothing to high levels of student accomplishment and competence, Lumina intends to play a similarly galvanizing role.

With Academically Adrift as the latest and loudest warning signal, the Degree Profile charts a new direction, and not a minute too soon.

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By Daniel de Vise  | January 27, 2011; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  Administration, Attainment, Pedagogy, Research  | Tags:  Academically Adrift, Lumina Degree Profile, Lumina report, college completion, college graduation  
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Somewhere in the profile we need a spelling competency. "Duel" and "dual" do not mean the same thing although teaching math -- or English -- seems like a duel some days.

Posted by: Christina405 | January 28, 2011 5:56 AM | Report abuse

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