What skills do college students need for success in today’s economy, and how can colleges demonstrate they can foster the development of those skills? Many of today’s institutions grapple with these important questions.
In 2015, Lebanon Valley College (LVC) adopted a new general education framework we called “Constellation.” Our framework was based on the core skills necessary for success as identified by national organizations such as the American Association of Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) and the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE®). These organizations each identify skills including intercultural competence, written communication, oral communication, and critical thinking as key to student success in today’s world.
Delivering on development of critical thinking skills, especially for colleges and universities, is challenging. What’s more, earlier research has shown that students demonstrate little or no gain in critical thinking skills through their college years. As an institution, we also recognized the value and key importance of noncognitive skills, such as time and stress management, for both student and professional success, and scaffolded those skills into the curriculum at several points.
As we progressed in the development of our framework, we asked ourselves: “Is this new curriculum working? Are we being effective?” We knew we couldn’t do this alone, so over the past three years, LVC has worked in partnership with ETS in a longitudinal research project led by research scientists Guangming Ling and Sam Rikoon. The project included the use and administration of the organization’s standardized assessment tools to measure and track student outcomes in both critical thinking skills and noncognitive skills.
The project made use of both the HEIghten® Critical Thinking outcomes assessment and a noncognitive survey to measure and track these outcomes at various developmental points throughout a student’s years at the College. These tools provided us with important insights to help determine our level of effectiveness. We are now in a better position to determine whether our curriculum is working and confidently assert that our approach is effective given the necessary supporting data.
ETS has been a key partner in helping the College confidently stand behind its value proposition: A degree from LVC gives students the skills they need for success. Students at LVC demonstrate statistically significant gains in critical thinking, as assessed by the HEIghten assessment—just in their first year. Further, LVC faculty members have posited this also could be due in part to students’ participation in the College’s First-Year Experience program, which is taught by full-time faculty and challenges students to engage with difficult questions while also developing college-ready soft skills.
The College used the noncognitive assessment to measure progress in outcomes and to compare those results with other measures of student achievement, like retention and GPA. This research underscored the relationships among various noncognitive factors and student success. Academic skills, commitment to college goals, and connectedness on campus were all clearly related to institutional retention. Faculty then used detailed individual reports based on data from the noncognitive assessment in one-on-one coaching sessions to make connections between students and relevant support offices. The noncognitive assessment also has been useful in demonstrating the importance of factors like institutional commitment, and planning interventions such as events designed to better integrate students with a community in their major subject area.
The fruits of the partnership we’ve developed with ETS has been exciting for us as an institution.
Today, there is no shortage of colleges feeling continued pressure to connect learning and long-term student success, while demonstrating the value of their institution’s degree in today’s marketplace. For LVC, a re-envisioned general education curriculum, in partnership with ETS, is helping to both continually refine our approach to better meet students’ needs and make an evidence-based case for the value of an LVC degree.
Laura Eldred is Associate Professor of English and Assistant Dean at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania. Marc Harris is Dean of Faculty and Deputy Title IX Coordinator at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.