The Chasm of Ignorance

Toroweap OverlookNina’s recent post about the possible but unknown effect of active learning pedagogy on student retention and my last post about classroom assessment techniques dovetail with a recent discussion with my campus colleagues about our university’s future direction. Much of the conversation centered on information — what do we think we know about the university, what do we not know but should, and how can we use information to maximum effect?

Answering these questions is difficult, for several reasons:

  • Some data that could be very useful isn’t being collected. For example, at the institutional level, teaching ability is measured almost entirely by student course evaluations, even though everyone knows that the evaluation instrument is seriously flawed and that the results are extremely biased. And I seriously doubt we are tracking whether or how the retention rate correlates with the academic majors declared by incoming students.
  • Other data is being collected but it isn’t shared across different units of the university. I can and do contact the staff person in charge of students’ so-called first-year experience to learn, in aggregate terms, the socioeconomic and ethnic composition of the freshmen class. Why? I want to know what kinds of students I am encountering in the classroom. I could probably also ask every department chair how many students are enrolled in the different majors that are offered by each department. But none of this information is automatically disseminated to the entire faculty.

This information gap makes the university much more systemically fragile than it needs to be. We have a small enrollment and lack the necessary resources to be all things to all people. Yet we don’t know which niches in the educational marketplace we are best positioned to exploit, we probably could be better at serving the market niches that we do operate in, and we lack a strong brand.