National Survey of College Leaders Reveals Clear Consensus on Learning Outcomes, Greater Emphasis in General Education on Integration, Applied, and Project-Based Learning

Findings from Survey of Chief Academic Officers Reveal Trends in General Education Design, Learning Outcomes, Digital Learning Strategies, and Use of High-Impact Educational Practices

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Washington, DC—January 19, 2016—The Association of American Colleges and Universities released today the second of three planned reports highlighting findings from a national survey of Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) conducted by Hart Research Associates.  This new report, Recent Trends in General Education Design, Learning Outcomes, and Teaching Approaches,” highlights findings from the survey of a representative sample of chief academic officers at AAC&U member institutions including respondents from across the full spectrum of public, private, two-year, and four-year institutions.

An earlier report released in November 2015, “Bringing Equity and Quality Learning Together: Institutional Priorities for Tracking and Advancing Underserved Students’ Success,” highlighted additional findings from both the national survey and from structured interviews related to goal-setting and priorities for diversity, equity, and student success in both completing degrees and achieving key learning outcomes.

“Consistent with The LEAP Challenge that AAC&U released as part of its ‘second century’ vision, AAC&U member institutions have made significant progress in creating more integrative and intentional designs for learning that will better prepare today’s students to meet the challenges of our global century,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider.  “The findings we release today,” she noted, “also confirm the need for continued work to ensure that all students gain both broad knowledge and high-level, cross-cutting skills and that all students have guided practice in applying their knowledge and skills to complex problem-solving.  Taken together with the November 2015 report, the survey findings show that we need to bring equity-minded attention to the question of which college students are benefitting, and which are not, from the kind of learning that all students will need, for careers, for civil society, and for their own lives.”

Key Findings:

Consensus on Learning Outcomes; More Work Needed to Help Students Understand Outcomes

  • 85 percent of CAOs report that their institution has a common set of intended learning outcomes that apply to all students.  In an earlier 2008 survey, only 78 percent reported having common learning outcomes.
  • 70 percent of CAOs report that the institution is tracking students’ achievement of their shared learning outcomes.
  • There is significant agreement across AAC&U member institutions about the learning outcomes that are important for all students.  The outcomes most commonly named by institutions across different institutional types have remained remarkably stable in recent years.  One area where institutions are placing more emphasis is in learning outcomes related to research skills and integrative projects.
  • While more institutions have common learning outcomes today than they did in 2008 and many offer orientations to liberal education to all or some students, leaders do not report that students have a greater understanding of these learning goals than they did seven years ago.

High-Impact Educational Practices Offered But Rarely Required; Much Room for Improvement in Use of Digital Learning Tools and Strategies

  • CAOs clearly see the value in several evidence-based interventions and high-impact educational practices to advance student success.  Of 10 high-impact interventions tested, however, there are only three that a majority of institutions require for all of their students.  These include: first-year experiences that support the transition to college, first-year academic seminars, and global or world culture studies.  Other practices that evidence shows have a positive impact especially for traditionally underserved students such as service learning or undergraduate research are offered by many institutions, but are rarely required.
  • Nearly all institutions are offering to students the option of integrative or applied learning projects, but less than one in four requires all students to participate in these types of projects.  In an earlier AAC&U survey of employers in 2014, large majorities of employers (73 percent) said that requiring college students to complete a significant applied learning project before they graduate would improve the quality of graduates’ preparation for careers.
  • Most Chief Academic Officers think at least some faculty members at their institution are using available digital learning tools effectively, but they indicate room for their campuses to expand the effective use of digital learning tools.  Only 36 percent indicate that “most” of their current faculty members are using digital learning tools effectively in their courses.

General Education Redesign a Priority; More Attention to Integration and Applied Learning Than To Broad Knowledge Acquisition

  • Two in three Chief Academic Officers say their institutions are placing more emphasis on integration of knowledge, skills, and application in their general education program, and nearly as many (61 percent) indicate their campus is placing more emphasis on applied learning experiences.
  • Half (51 percent) are placing more emphasis on cross-cutting skill development, while just one in three (32 percent) is placing more emphasis on broad knowledge acquisition.
  • Compared to findings in 2008, far more academic administrators today believe their general education programs “have clear learning outcomes” and that they are “assessing student achievement of learning outcomes.”
  • Only 35 percent of academic leaders, however, report that their general education programs have “coherent sequences of courses.”
  • While the vast majority of institutions still use a “distribution model” with course choices in different skill or knowledge areas, the vast majority of institutions usemore integrative general education designs either in combination with a distribution model (68 percent) or alone (24 percent).

“While this new report reveals that few institutions require all students to undertake a senior project, results from the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) indicate that nearly half of all seniors at four-year institutions participate in some form of culminating experience, and a majority of those experiences involve a senior project or thesis,” said Alexander C. McCormick, Director of NSSE.  “These findings suggest that it's entirely feasible to take this proven high-impact practice to scale.”

“With both workplaces and our communities rife with complex problem-solving challenges, it is more important than ever that we ensure that college learning prepares students to bring the various pieces of their educational experiences together in significant, integrative projects,” said Senior Vice President for Academic Planning and Public Engagement, Debra Humphreys.  “Higher education institutions need to follow the lead of their own departments in making culminating work expected of all students.”

Find full findings from the current and previous reports, including survey methodology, online here: www.aacu.org/about/2015-membersurvey.

The third and final report on findings from the national survey will be released in February of 2016 and will focus on trends in assessment of student learning outcomes.