Focus on the Student Experience to Increase Quality
and Completion

In January 2012, AAC&U published a special issue of its journal, Liberal Education, featuring a series of articles about implications—intended and unintended—of the Completion Agenda. We have invited a series of national educational leaders and practitioners to comment on the issues raised. This fifth and final posting is by Hilary Pennington, former director of Education, Postsecondary Success, and Special Initiatives for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The latest issue of Liberal Education raises important questions about the so-called “completion agenda,” including concern that a more aggressive focus on helping students complete the degrees they start will degrade learning and quality in higher education. To me, the key question is how to move forward on both fronts simultaneously—reorienting the debate so that it is both/and, not either/or.

How do we do this? As Carol Geary Schneider wisely notes, by making markers of learning or quality an integral part of the completion agenda. The best change efforts I know are doing exactly that. What they have in common is putting students and the student experience at the center. Learning is not defined as imparting what professors know and choose to teach, but rather as advancing what knowledge students master as they progress towards their goals.

Achieving deeper learning and better completion requires an intentional focus on student engagement and progression, not just at the level of the individual course, but across the entire program of study that the student experiences.

Of course, this is easier said than done—especially at a time when resource constraints put added burdens on faculty and student services. But innovative institutions around the country are demonstrating promising successes. Powerful examples include

Efforts to reinvent developmental education in two and four year institutions—through a combination of course redesign, contextualization, and technology that personalizes learning and student supports.

Increasing attention to coherent programs of study, where the institution and its faculty help guide student choice. An example is the twenty-one community colleges participating in Completion by Design. They are analyzing where they lose students, and how best to target resources to re-engage and support them. They are using their own best practices and lessons learned from peer institutions like Valencia Community College, which reoriented student supports based on data indicating that getting through the first five courses, on first attempt, was the best predictor that a student will graduate.

Interactive, adaptive on-line and hybrid learning technologies, such as those being used by Arizona State University’s faculty to create new developmental and freshman math courses in partnership with the technology company Knewton. Their adaptive learning platform uses data from each student’s activities to help customize feedback, provide extra practice, and test for mastery of all the concepts in a given course. Or Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative, which joins cognitive scientists, curriculum designers, and math professors to create an intelligent tutoring system—focused on helping students practice key concepts by taking them through the thought processes experts use to solve problems in their disciplines. Even more powerful, the technology lets the professors see where students are struggling, so that they can target their classroom lectures on places where students need help. The model dramatically improves course completion rates and mastery of subject material—in half the time.

Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College, puts it best: “we should not assume that if more students complete college, they will have learned more,” but rather, “if institutions get more effective at helping students learn more, then more students will complete.”

Hilary Pennington
Former Director of Education, Postsecondary Success, and Special Initiatives
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
United States Program


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One Response to “Focus on the Student Experience to Increase Quality
and Completion”

  1. John Stanton says:

    I agree that students who have a positive experience are more likely to complete their studies. Perhaps more colleges and universities should follow the example of Belmont College who treats all students as individuals and provides interactive, hands-on learning techniques that foster partnerships with College faculty and staff members and encourage success on and off campus.

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