Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education—at Alverno College
The Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education provides an important window into student learning outcomes at Alverno. It is an external and objective look at how students change during their undergraduate experience.
Who Participated in the Study?
At Alverno, the study was supported by the contributions of the Fall 2008 entering class of students. Alpha staff writers, Crystal Meller and Trelayna Garner, reported on the study and the significant contributions these students made to the college. Within their first weeks on campus as students, exactly 415 of 538 participated in the first of three opportunities to contribute to the study. In the second wave of the study (conducted Spring 2009), the participation rate was 45%. The third wave of the study was held in Spring of 2012. Of those students still on campus who had participated in the first wave, 61% (108 students) participated in this third wave.
What are the Initial Findings?
Two measurement instruments in the study are considered to be direct measures of student learning outcomes. Because the tasks on these tests required the most time to complete, participating students were only asked to complete one of the two, either the CAAP Critical Thinking Test [pdf] or the DIT-2 measure of moral reasoning. We focus here on observed change on these two broad measures of growth and note that they have been widely used in other college studies. On both measures, Alverno students overall showed statistically significant gains by their second semester. Alverno’s earlier groundbreaking longitudinal study had similar findings, but a closer look also shows some differences from the previous study.
Critical Thinking: In this Wabash study, the Alverno student growth in critical thinking appeared stronger within the first year than what we observed over the longer two year period in the previous study. With its shorter time between the first and second testing, the latest study also more specifically supported the effectiveness of the first-year curriculum in facilitating student growth in critical thinking. Even more notably, statistical analysis found that this growth was related to the number of credits students successfully completed in the first year, but not to the number of hours employed off campus. This is strong evidence for the distinct contribution of the Alverno curriculum to student growth in critical thinking.
Student gains in critical thinking compared favorably with those at other colleges participating in the study. Indeed, the gains at Alverno were over six times the average gains observed at the other 31 small liberal arts colleges participating in the Wabash study.
As educational researchers, we believe it is important to note that even so-called objective comparisons like these need to be taken with a metaphorical grain of salt. For example, we assume in making this comparison with these other colleges that their testing conditions did not undermine student motivation to do their best, but that assumption might not be true. Indeed, we take both this specific concern and the magnitude of the gains in Critical Thinking at Alverno as an argument against claims that some other researchers have made that American college students have “limited gains” in critical thinking. Thus, the stronger first-year gains in Critical Thinking at Alverno may have implications for a national dialogue.
Moral Reasoning: The first-year Alverno student gains that we observed in moral reasoning in the Wabash study did not appear as strong as the two-year gains that we had observed in the previous Alverno Longitudinal Study. The Alverno student moral reasoning gains in the current Wabash study were also somewhat smaller than the average gains observed at the other 31 small liberal arts colleges participating in the Wabash study. But there is another point to make about these comparisons. Both this particular Wabash group of liberal arts colleges and the previous Alverno Longitudinal Study set particularly high standards with which to compare. Indeed, the Alverno students’ moral reasoning gains observed in the current Wabash study were roughly the same as have been observed in previous studies of other liberal arts colleges (McNeel, 1994; Pascarella & Terenzini, 2005).
Other Findings: Students most involved in co-curriculum experiences, such as Community Day, demonstrated greater gains in self-reported openness to diversity. It might be that students who chose to be involved are more ready to benefit from experiences that deeply engage them with others from diverse backgrounds, but the pattern of findings also suggests that these co-curriculum experiences provided an environment for positive diversity experiences beyond the classroom that became meaningful in striking ways to them. Interestingly, one of the predictors of students continuing their education at Alverno was their participating in the Wabash study within their first weeks on campus.
How are the Findings Being Used at Alverno?
The findings have given the faculty, staff, administrators, and Board of Trustees a reasonably broad and sharable look at student growth. This included examining whether or not there were differences in student growth by major or other characteristics. For example, the observed growth in critical thinking and moral reasoning in the present study did not appear to be different by major, which is consistent with our previous findings that showed the broad effectiveness of the Alverno ability-based curriculum. A new finding is that these areas of growth also did not differ by ethnic background. Our previous study had fewer minority students and so was not suited to testing for whether the curriculum worked equally well for the diversity of today’s student population. This is an important way the current study is updating the previous study. Findings on what predict current students continuing their education at Alverno are also directly informing the college’s initiative to assist more students to successfully complete their degree.
It is also of some note that the strong gains on the Critical Thinking Test involved a multiple choice format. In choosing to participate in the national study, we noted that this might put Alverno students at some disadvantage relative to those at other colleges where this kind of test format would be more often used. Apparently, gains in the tested thinking skills overpowered any less recently practiced familiarity with the testing format.
The less strong student gains in moral reasoning compared with those previously observed at Alverno stimulated several faculty discussions. The Alverno faculty-led ability department that oversees the valuing in decision-making ability in the curriculum decided to bring together all of the faculty teaching valuing in first-year courses to discuss their classroom approaches. In these discussions, faculty were careful not to fall into the “teaching to the test” trap. Instead, faculty members shared with one another how they introduced students to the valuing ability. They also discussed what classroom strategies seemed most effective in assisting students to self-identify values from their lives and to bring these into greater intellectual and emotional awareness. As one clarification, faculty concluded that the elements of the valuing ability that are most emphasized in the first year curriculum may not be directly measured through the moral reasoning instrument used in the study. This initial conclusion made it all the more important to effectively implement the third phase of the study. What changes will we see for the Fall 2008 entering students now that they have progressed further through the Alverno curriculum?
How are the Findings Being Used Beyond Alverno?
Institutions participating in the Wabash Study have shared findings at their institutions with one another to better understand student growth. Alverno has worked closely with those institutions who are also in the Consortium for Innovative Environments in Learning to compare each other’s findings in a way that identifies each institution’s distinctive excellences. For example, Alverno College and Prescott College jointly compared results [pdf] on student educational experiences. The national researchers for the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education are also publishing cross-college findings on what works. These often-cited findings are informing efforts across many institutions of higher education to engage their students in deep and integrative learning. By being a participating college in the Wabash study, Alverno is better able to engage in dialogue with these researchers and other educators and to draw meaningful conclusions that are for the benefit of all. Moreover, with the strong objective evidence of student learning by Alverno students, the current study has already significantly added to our ability to more broadly communicate the case for the rigor, effectiveness, and meaningfulness of the first year of an Alverno education. But, we know that it is the four years of objective change and growth that we most need to understand and appreciate. We anticipate that data from the third phase of the study will be analyzed in Spring 2013.
McNeel, S. P. (1994). College teaching and student moral development. In J. R. Rest & D. Narváez (Eds.), Moral development in the professions: Psychology and applied ethics (pp. 27–49). Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.
Pascarella, E. T., & Terenzini, P. T. (2005). How college affects students: Volume 2. A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.