What it means to be an “Engaged Scholar in Critical Thinking”

How can student records most accurately reflect student learning?--That’s the question driving the pilot Comprehensive Student Records (CSR) project funded by a grant from Lumina Foundation and spearheaded by AACRAO and NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education.

The project is focused on developing comprehensive student records that document evidence of student learning and achievement beyond traditional course names, credits, and grades. The current project includes twelve higher education institutions (listed below)* – two- and four-year, public and private – that are already developing records that display learning outcomes, use competency-based education approaches to education and/or document co-curricular experiences.

AACRAO is publishing a series of institutional profiles about each model record, the campus-wide collaboration required to enact change, and the goals each model is designed to achieve. Each of the institutions involved in the pilot project serves a different student population. Classified as both Hispanic- and minority-serving (study body is 47 percent Hispanic, 27 percent African American and 10 percent Asian American), The University of Houston -- Downtown is an urban commuter institution serving about 14,200 students.

The University of Houston--Downtown is developing a comprehensive student record that highlights and advances the Texas public institution’s mission to serve its community.

“We serve a different demographic than many largely residential flagship institutions,” said Tomikia Pickett LeGrande, EdD, Vice President for Student Affairs and Enrollment Management.

Classified as both Hispanic- and minority-serving (study body is 47 percent Hispanic, 27 percent African American and 10 percent Asian American), the campus is an urban commuter institution of about 14,200 students. Around 60 percent of enrolled students are first-generation and 68 percent from a low socioeconomic background. The average student age is 27.

“We, at UHD, are very committed to improving the community. As an institution we are very interested in how we impact the economy, the workforce, and the quality of life and learning in the greater Houston area,” LeGrande said. In fact, the university has received the Carnegie Foundation Community Engagement Classification.

Understanding the need to produce graduates with transferable employment skills,  University leaders set an intention to focus on strengthening student skills in the area of “critical thinking in a community context” as the quality enhancement plan (QEP) for its regional accreditation last year.  Toward that end, the university is developing its first competency badge: Engaged Scholar in Critical Thinking.

Critical thinking in a community context

The badge, developed with funding from Lumina Foundation and help from AACRAO and NASPA consultants and implemented in Fall 2016, is the first step in the institution’s vision for a comprehensive “Elite Scholar” record. (View the badge here.)

“Eventually we’d like an enhanced or specialized diploma that identifies a series of competencies and 21st-century skills,” said LeGrande. That visual diploma would supplement the degree and academic transcript, to show achievements in skills such as critical thinking, leadership, oral communication, and others.

“Employers commonly say that students graduate with a degree but their problem-solving skills are not at the expected proficiency level,” LeGrande said. “So this comprehensive student record is primarily a way to help the student articulate to employers or graduate schools what they’ve learned in a competency-driven way. This document is not for the employer--it in and of itself doesn’t provide any more evidence that a student can critically think.  We are hopeful that it does help students develop a consistent narrative about what their learning experiences mean, and not only talk about what they’ve learned but to connect it to tangible evidence and examples.”

From awareness to action

To earn the Engaged Scholar in Critical Thinking badge, students have to take a minimum of four specially designated courses over two years. At least one of those courses has to be at the “awareness” level, one at the “integration” level, and one at the “involvement” level. Awareness courses help students understand issues in their community, such as food insecurity and community gardens; Integration courses may introduce them to speakers, organizations and other real-world actors in the community; and the involvement component requires a community-oriented service learning project.

So far, 41 courses have been identified as having a focus on critical thinking in the community context at one of those three levels.

“Because we’ve been doing community engagement work for so long, many courses already included the community context; however, faculty and academic departments interested in offering courses that could qualify for the Engaged Scholar badge in Critical Thinking redesigned their course and syllabi to adopt learning outcomes to meet these requirements," LeGrande said. "Also, as part of the project, students can easily run a degree audit to how many courses they need to complete the digital badge.”

The badge prototype has been developed, and they are currently evaluating the prototype to see if the badge should be interactive, allowing employers to get more in-depth information about the relevant courses and experiences.

A ‘grassroots process’

The Faculty governance committee dedicated to the QEP oversees the process by which courses are reviewed, and that buy-in was key to the project’s implementation.

“A great deal of the success has to do with the engagement and collaboration of faculty and student affairs,” LeGrande said. “When we talk about the people who need to be involved with a comprehensive student record, the first thought that comes up is ‘the Registrar needs to lead this project for us’--because, yes, the Registrar ‘oversees’ the record to ensure authenticity and validity. But the record is really owned by those that offer the curriculum--the faculty.  They have to be an intricate part of the process.  It has to be a grassroots effort and you have to allow it to evolve in response to feedback.”

In addition to opening lines of communication with employers and faculty, the project has been an opportunity for the institution to improve its accountability for teaching students relevant skills.

“Higher ed can be seen a ‘silo on the hill’ that just produces an output of workers with no accountability--but we can’t just expect the public to trust us any longer,” LeGrande said. “This record is our opportunity to ensure we’re teaching students competencies they need for employability and help them to articulate and prove they have the skills our communities need.”

 

* The twelve institutions are as follows (with links to previous Connect profiles):

Borough of Manhattan Community College

Brandman University

Dillard University

Elon University

Indiana University – Purdue University Indianapolis

LaGuardia Community College

Stanford University

University of Central Oklahoma

University of Houston-Downtown

University of Maryland University College

University of South Carolina

University of Wisconsin – Extension and Wisconsin Colleges