Harvard Conference Seeks to Jolt University Teaching

A conference on Havard’s new initiative for learning and teaching was held which featured demonstrations of innovative approaches to teaching. The conference, prompted by the growth of online and for-profit providers which seemed to have challenged classroom experience, and the fact that teaching on most college campuses had not changed much despite increasing awareness on how students learn, discussed the problems of traditional lecture and the misconceptions about teaching and learning of both students and faculty members. It also discussed the effective ways to improve learning, including assessment and writing.

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How to improve student learning? Some ideas from American higher education

Based on the surveys from the Association of American Colleges and Universities, National Survey of Student Engagement, and Wabash National Study on issues such as the purpose of college education, student learning and engagement, and the cognitive and personal growth of university students, the article “Let’s Improve Learning. OK, but How?” concludes that an approach to learning which is explicit about its purposes, intentional in the way departmental and class requirements link to those purposes, and evidence-based in classroom practices may be the key to improve student learning in American universities. It is also suggested that institutions should develop a systematic evaluation of effectiveness so that they would understand clearly what works and what does not work.

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UK Higher education standards: improving course evaluation

In 2011, Electric Paper gathered the opinions of senior academics and student representatives in UK universities to examine the latest issues and trends in course evaluation, and the improvements that need to be made to gain more effective student feedback on courses and lecturers.

According to the report, many universities find it hard to get a meaningful response from students to evaluate teaching quality, and this is partly due to survey fatigue. Apart from having to improve the response rate, universities should engage students more effectively in the feedback process. Alex Bols, head of education and quality at the National Union of Students, suggested: “It’s important for universities to close the loop and tell students what has happened – or hasn’t happened – as a result of the feedback provided and why. This should not be an autopsy at the end of a course, but a process embedded through the learning experience so that it is of benefit to the student giving the feedback and their experience.” Effective course evaluation is essential for universities to provide a clear evidence base to demonstrate their ‘value’ to students. “I think students will want to know that institutions take their concerns seriously, and that education is seen as a collaborative partnership between the university and the students – not just a business transaction”, said Alex Nutt, academic affairs officer at the University of Leicester Students’ Union.

In some cases, feedback may come back when it is too late for the staff to do anything about it. The report suggests that exploiting innovative new technologies can help improve turnaround time. Professor Huw Morris, pro vice-chancellor (academic) at the University of Salford, said “Going forward I anticipate that the higher education sector will need to utilise online devices to capture student feedback, but at the same time ensure that this is not done in an intrusive manner.”

Universities may also need to administer surveys centrally in order to achieve consistent use and analysis of data. For example, a standard set of survey questions can be developed centrally and individual departments can have the flexibility to develop additional questions.

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General Education at Harvard

Harvard’s Program in General Education (Gen Ed) tries to connect what students learn at the College with the lives they’ll lead after graduation. Harvard undergraduates are required to take at least one Gen Ed course in each of the eight study areas: aesthetic and interpretive understanding; culture and belief; empirical and mathematical reasoning; ethical reasoning; science of living systems; science of the physical universe; societies of the world; and the United States in the world. Gen Ed in Harvard has become a hit with students and faculties and has expanded to more than 400 courses since its launch in 2009.

Gen Ed aims to prepare students for a life of change and complexity, rather than a specific career. In 2006, the American Association of Colleges and Universities conducted a poll that asked business executives from hundreds of midsized firms how colleges should prepare students to succeed in the global economy. 95% of employers said it was either “very important” or “fairly important” for colleges to provide “broad knowledge in a variety of areas of study” that “helps students develop … intellectual and practical skills … such as communication, analytical, and problem-solving skills”.

“The curriculum exposes undergraduates to the wide range of ideas and knowledge available here at one of the world’s leading research universities. It provides students with the ability to think critically and to see a problem from many different perspectives. And we believe it helps students to become lifelong learners who will always be interested in the world around them,” said College Dean Evelynn M. Hammonds.

Gen Ed classes are taught by teachers from nearly every faculty at Harvard. Stephanie Kenen, associate dean of undergraduate education and administrative director of the Program in General Education, said the opportunity to create courses that draw from different disciplines and to teach enthusiastic young students already has attracted some of the brightest scholars at the University to Gen Ed.

“Once the program launched, faculty across campus began to see opportunities for new kinds of teaching and interdisciplinary work,” she said. “We began to see more courses being proposed. The curriculum provides opportunities and support for course topics that might not fit in particular Schools or departments.”

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European Union sets 20% student mobility target

European Union member governments have agreed that by 2020, an EU average of at least 20% of higher education graduates should have had three months studying or training abroad. Education ministers from the 27 member states adopted conclusions in November, 2011 on the modernisation of higher education with a special emphasis on mobility.

“Learning mobility can help improve the overall quality of education, especially through closer cooperation between educational institutions,” the declaration stated. It can also “help to reinforce a sense of European identity and citizenship”.

Ministers also highlighted steps to strengthen mobility, they include:

  • More systematic inclusion of mobility in curricula, ensuring efficient recognition of credits gained through the ECTS, the Diploma Supplement, quality assurance and the European Qualifications Framework.
  • Elimination of barriers to switching institutions between bachelor and masters degrees and to cross-border cooperation and exchanges.
  • Better access and employment conditions for students and teachers from non-European countries, including reducing administrative difficulties in obtaining visas.
  • Ensuring quality assurance systems cover franchise systems adequately.
  • Promoting higher education institutional cooperation.
[Learn more: http://www.universityworldnews.com/article.php?story=2011120816445063]

Employers in the U.S. say college graduates lack job skills

Many U.S. employers believe colleges are not adequately preparing students for jobs, according to findings from the Accrediting Council for Independent Colleges and Schools.

The group surveyed more than 1,000 employers in various industries in November, 2011 about whether job applicants possess the skills to succeed in the workplace. More than half of the employers said finding qualified applicants is difficult, and just under half thought students should receive specific workplace training rather than a more broad-based education.

According to the survey results, less than 10 percent of employers thought colleges did an “excellent” job of preparing students for work. On all hiring criteria included in the survey, such as adaptability and critical thinking, graduates were performing below employers’ expectations.

[Learn more: http://chronicle.com/article/Employers-Say-College/130013/]

Universities need to work harder to turn UK students into global graduates

There is a globally mobile, graduate workforce and leading employers seek to recruit the very best global graduates.

The report “Global Graduates into Global Leaders” by the Council for Industry and Higher Education (CIHE) has identified from leading employers the global competencies which they look for in potential recruits. It is suggested that individuals who are comfortable working in global teams, who take an active interest in the world around them, who have thought about the global challenges and opportunities facing business and are eager to respond to them would catch recruiters’ eyes.

To develop the best global leaders it is crucial that higher education institutions create the right environments and opportunities for young people to develop global competencies and mindset. Institutions should seek to provide a solid grounding for students by actively encouraging students to broaden their horizons and providing transnational programmes or opportunities for extra-curricular pursuits.

[Learn more: http://www.guardian.co.uk/higher-education-network/blog/2011/nov/29/universities-uk-students-global-graduates]

Learning from UK Quality Assurance Agency review: inside the assessments

Every publicly funded college in the UK has its teaching, learning and assessment capabilities reviewed by a team from the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) at least once every six years.

Institutions submit a self-evaluation to QAA. The universities are expected to be self-critical, and they should highlight their strengths and point to any innovations that they are particularly proud of. A student written submission from the students’ union is also required. In addition, the reviewers also study reviews by other external bodies, and supporting materials that the universities provide before they book their initial visit.

Alison Blackburn, head of academic quality and standards at the University of Central Lancashire who has taken part in 10 QAA reviews, said, “We choose the meetings based on how the institution has profiled itself. The process respects their individuality.” The process is not about catching institutions out, but the reviewers expect the initial briefing document provided by the institution has to be self-critical. “The QAA guidance leads them to discuss problems and issues and work out possible resolutions,” Blackburn said. “It’s about advancement for the whole sector.”

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“Fostering Student Engagement Campuswide”, National Survey of Student Engagement Annual Results 2011

Findings released by the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) show that full-time college students, on average, spend 15 hours a week on their studies. However, study time differed by academic majors, for example, seniors in engineering averaged about 19 hours per week, while their peers in the social sciences and business averaged five fewer hours. The findings were from a 2011 survey of 416,000 first-year students and seniors attending 673 U.S. colleges and universities.

The findings raise questions about whether there is a mismatch between the work asked of students and what students believe necessary to succeed, and whether Faculty expectations for study time may need to be adjusted.

Alexander C. McCormick, NSSE director and associate professor of education at Indiana University, suggests that Faculties and academic leaders may need to reflect on their expectations for academic work by discipline. It would also be useful to explicitly teach study skills and strategies so that students can become effective learners.

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Value of degrees to be revealed for first time in the UK

Official work force surveys in the UK are now asking respondents about which universities they attended. As a result, it will be possible to show which university graduates dominate lucrative careers like law and banking, and the financial benefits over time of attending particular institutions.

It is part of a move by ministers to make higher education more accountable and reveal key details about what undergraduates get for their money.

The data is collected by the Office for National Statistics as part of the Labour Force Survey (LFS), which questions 110,000 people in 50,000 households at quarterly intervals and is used to show national employment levels.

“The labour force survey gives details of salaries and employment over time, which students can make judgements on,” A government source said. “Over time the LFS information could enable modelling of lifetime earnings by institution and help contribute to our understanding of social mobility.”

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