Previous Essays

Teaching to Lead
Teaching practices that help students develop leadership

Knowing About vs. Knowing How
The challenges of translating what we know about good practices into making our classes, majors, and programs more effective

Clear and Organized Teaching
Why a basic and under-appreciated teaching skill is critical for student learning

Improving Educational Quality
Lessons learned from liberal arts colleges about the conditions that facilitate the use of evidence to improve student learning

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Friday
Feb142014

Do we need a culture of evidence or a culture of better? The Wabash Study of Institutional Change

In their 2014 report, Knowing What Students Know and Can Do: The Current State of Student Learning Outcomes Assessment in US Colleges and Universities, Kuh, Jankowski, Ikenberry, and Kinzie conclude by stating:

"Higher education may be on the verge of an inflection point where what follows is a more purposeful use of evidence of student learning outcomes in decision making which, in turn, has the potential to enhance academic quality and institutional effectiveness. To realize this promise sooner than later, colleges and universities must complete the transition from a culture of compliance to a culture of evidence based decision-making in which key decisions and policies are informed and evaluated by the ultimate yardstick: a measurable, positive impact on student learning and success."

We have heard the phrase "culture of evidence" for many years, and while we agree with the idea, we wonder whether the phrase makes evidence an end, rather than a means to an end. Our goal is to get better for students, and evidence is a key, but not the sole, means by which to achieve this goal.

In a recent review of our work with liberal arts colleges we noted that the colleges that made gains in improving student learning have "fostered a culture that supports the ongoing development and honest evaluation of educational experiments by students, staff, and faculty to improve teaching and learning" and that this culture is built on "a willingness to question the impact of courses, majors, and programs; . . . a sense of trust, respect, and collegiality among faculty, staff, administrators, and students; and an emphasis on small-scale, evidence-based improvement efforts that do not require additional resources." [See our report: Improving the Educational Quality of Liberal Arts Colleges]

So the cultures that "close the loop" not only have to collect evidence, but also must have other qualities that give evidence traction. Lots of schools have evidence—only a few schools put that evidence to use. Our long-term interest in learning more about the factors that give evidence actionable weight in some contexts but not in others has led us to begin a new national research project: the Wabash Study of Institutional Change (WSIC). We are kicking off that study today and hope that you will consider participating. For more information about the WSIC and your opportunity to contribute to the study, see the Call for Participation.