By Charles Blaich
We recently returned from a great visit to Bennington College. Bennington is participating in the Wabash Study, and over the last two months we’ve been analyzing, talking about, and thinking through some of Bennington’s study data with three of our colleagues at Bennington—Wendy Hirsch, Elissa Tenny, and Ron Cohen.
Like most good assessment conversations, we’ve focused on trying to identify new information that might be useful to Bennington staff and faculty in improving the college’s student-centered academic program. As we reviewed Bennington’s quantitative data in the days prior to our visit, we discovered something very interesting. For Bennington students, there’s a very strong relationship between the quality of student–student interactions and the quality of students’ academic engagement. Students who reported that they have close, supportive, intellectually engaging relationships with other students were more likely to report (1) having high-impact interactions outside of class with faculty, (2) being intellectually challenged in class, and (3) being asked to examine the strengths and weakness of their views. Likewise, stdents who were less likely to report engaging in these kinds of interactions with other students were less likely to report being academically engaged.
Although it makes sense for there to be some relationship between peer interactions and academic engagement, the relationship is unusually strong at Bennington. When we talked about this prior to our trip, we really had no idea about why this might be true at Bennington. As part of our pre-visit routine, we reviewed Bennington’s website, where we read about how Bennington requires students to create their own academic plan rather than rely on a standard general education program or academic major, but we still didn’t have a sense for why the relationship between peer interactions and academic engagement might be so strong at Bennington.
In our work with other Wabash Study schools, we’ve learned that a necessary first step toward making sense of a school’s quantitative assessment data is to talk with students about their education. We ask simple questions like: What’s making a difference for you? What experiences have been most powerful? What’s held you back? What do your best and worst teachers do? These aren’t formal focus groups or interviews. They are just conversations where we ask questions, listen carefully to the very smart things students so often say, think about what we’re hearing, and ask follow-up questions to make sure we understand.
Qualitative researchers will cringe at the “methodology free” nature of these discussions. But our goal isn’t to collect notes and recordings that we’ll spend hours and hours transcribing and reviewing. Our goal is to sufficiently understand how students are making sense of their college environment and making meaning of their educational experiences so that we can contextualize the quantitative assessment data we already have.
The reason for Bennington’s unusually strong correlation between high-quality student–student interactions and high-quality academic engagement became clear in short order during our conversations with students. Bennington staff and faculty really push students to develop and implement a thoughtful, individualized academic program. Students have to justify and refine this program repeatedly during their time at Bennington. This is high-stakes work for students because it is as much about questioning and forming their identity as it is about generating an academic plan. Students reported that they talked about their plans constantly. When we asked, “Who do you talk to about your plans?” Bennington students said, “Who don’t you talk to about your plans!”
There are many more things we could say about the unique educational experience students have at Bennington, but the answer to our question about why high-quality peer interactions and academic engagement are strongly correlated turned out to be simple—strong peer support is essential for a good education at Bennington. Having other students with whom you can talk, share ideas, and air your concerns means that you have colleagues with whom you discuss and think about your academic plan. What looked so unusual about the quantitative data made perfect sense within a few hours of our first conversations with students. Had we not spoken with Bennington students, we probably would have theorized about this relationship in the useless and perpetual way native to academics. Maybe we would have lucked into the right answer, but my guess is that we would have missed it because this level of peer engagement in serious academic work is outside of our experience. We would not have known to make this hypothesis. As we’ve learned from our conversations with students at many different colleges and universities, students are thinking about their education in ways that are at once surprising, interesting, and important. Most of the time we’re surprised and impressed by what we hear, and we learn over and over that we don’t know enough from looking at simple survey and test data to make sense of what’s happening at a school.
One Wabash Study school, North Carolina A&T State University, has increased the power of these conversations by replacing aging, and decidedly unhip, adult interviewers with student interviewers. The Wabash-Provost Scholars Program is directed by Karen Hornsby and Scott Simkins, and it engages undergraduates to evaluate A&T’s quantitative assessment data, to host focus groups with A&T students, to analyze quantitative and qualitative data, and to write summary reports for the A&T administration. These students and their advisors have also made a number of presentations on their findings. Karen, Scott, and their students are doing decidedly better scholarship than we are in our interviews, and together they are identifying many ways to improve their institution. I urge you to explore North Carolina A&T’s Academy for Teaching and Learning website to see how openly and intensively they are examining their Wabash Study data. It’s an effort we can all learn from.