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Executive Summary: Defining Liberal Arts Education - page 11 / 14

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Operational Definition - 11

presentation that he called, “What We Don’t Know about the Effects of Liberal Arts Education.” He argued that

  • What we don’t know about the effects of liberal arts education far outweighs what we know.

  • The definition of liberal arts is problematic (some studies define it at an institutional level, some in terms of coursework, pedagogy, etc.).

  • There is limited research on the effects and outcomes of taking liberal arts courses.

  • The direct causal effects of attending a liberal arts college versus other type of school are difficult to determine; instead, effects are likely to be indirect (transmitted through distinctive environments).

  • There is some suggestive evidence (non-replicated) that liberal arts colleges increase some student outcomes (i.e. moral reasoning, MCAT scores).

  • There is no research on the impact of liberal arts colleges (or education) in terms of cognitive growth, reasoning skills, general academic skills, moral reasoning and behavior, service, identity development, career maturity, etc.

  • There is little evidence of long-term impact of liberal arts education.

He concluded that while Astin had taken an important first step, much work needed to be done to develop a firmer understanding of liberal arts colleges and education.

Given this conclusion, it is interesting to note the following statement in one of Pascarella and Terenzini’s papers:

“…we know a number of conditions that foster student learning and development. These conditions include (among others) small institutional size, a strong faculty emphasis on teaching and students, a student body that attends college full-time and resides on campus, a common general education emphasis or shared intellectual experience in the curriculum, and frequent interaction in- and outside the classroom between students and faculty and between students and their peers.” 21

These conclusions seem to be almost identical to Astin’s. Moreover, most faculty and students at liberal arts colleges would say that this quote describes, in precise terms, the environment at their colleges. Why then didn’t these conclusions enter the discussion at the August meeting?

This is mostly speculation on our part, but we believe that many educational researchers view liberal arts colleges as well-to-do institutions at which both a set of supportive conditions and good pedagogical practices happen to co-exist. They do not see these laudable conditions and practices as being intrinsically connected to any underlying educational philosophy that might exist at such institutions. On this view, these practices and conditions can flourish at any kind of institution providing there are sufficient resources. 22

Yet, many faculty and administrators who’ve worked both at residential liberal arts colleges and larger institutions have a different perspective. They might argue that these supportive practices and conditions are more likely to co-exist at liberal arts colleges because such institutions are governed to some degree by an underlying philosophy that connects curricular

21 Pascarella, E. T. & Terenzini, P. T. (1998). Studying college students in the 21st century: Meeting the new challenges. The Review of Higher Education, 21, 151-165. This seems to be Astin’s argument. 22

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