Education Leadership Conference

Each year 18 million American students head off for college. But are they graduating with the practical skills and global awareness they need to succeed in the 21st century?

Most employers and educators don't think so, according to speakers at APA's 2007 Education Leadership Conference (ELC).

One solution may lie in providing students with a liberal education throughout their schooling that emphasizes learning goals, such as critical-thinking skills and respect for different cultural backgrounds, said keynote speaker Carol Geary Schneider, PhD, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U).

And psychology professors can help by adopting more intentional, engaging and empowering forms of student learning--which may lead students to a more successful future.

"In an economy fueled by innovation, the capabilities developed through a liberal education have become America's most valuable asset," she told 155 ELC attendees, who represented 27 organizations, 25 APA divisions and 15 governance groups.

'LEAP'ing ahead

According to a AAC&U national survey, 63 percent of employers believe recent college graduates are not prepared for today's global economy. In fact, throughout much of its research, the organization found a strong disconnect between the traits employers value in freshly minted graduates--broad knowledge of science and technology and the role of the United States in the world, for example--and what students see as important, such as strong time-management skills and expertise in their field of focus, said Schneider.

To combat this disconnect, in 2005 AAC&U launched an educational campaign--Liberal Education and America's Promise (LEAP): Excellence for Everyone as a Nation Goes to College--designed to help students and the public understand what's important in an undergraduate's experience, in order to gain needed proficiencies to succeed in the working world, Schneider said.

"Employers don't want students who are boxed into a mental cubicle and only know how to do one thing," she said. "We need to give students a compass to help them understand what they should be taking away from college."

Based on conversations with faculty and administrators from hundreds of colleges and universities and a long series of recommendations and reports from the business community, AAC&U compiled a list of "essential learning outcomes"--competencies students should acquire before completing their undergraduate education. APA has included these outcomes in its 2006 APA Guidelines for the Undergraduate Psychology Major. They include:

  • Knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world, with a focus on encouraging students to think about the big picture.
  • Extensive training in intellectual and practical skills, such as critical and creative thinking, written and oral communication, teamwork and problem-solving.
  • Personal and social responsibility, including local and global civic knowledge and engagement.
  • Integrative learning, demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems.

Many of these learning outcomes must be addressed within a student's general education courses, said Schneider, but field-specific departments and professional programs can team up to improve student success by incorporating more engaging learning practices--such as writing intensive courses and collaborative assignments--into curriculums, she noted.

"General education cannot do this alone," Schneider said. "It's the major that needs to help the students understand that they are working on broad competencies, even as they are developing field-specific knowledge and skills."

Targeted course design

Psychology's role in furthering the goals of a liberal education have been longstanding, said Cynthia Belar, APA's executive director of education. Since the 1950s, liberal education statements connecting the teaching of psychology to broader goals have been included in teaching conferences and reports written on undergraduate curricula, she said. But challenges remain. Next June, APA will sponsor the National Conference on Undergraduate Education in Psychology, to discuss critical issues and concerns in the area, including the ways psychology can stay relevant to students, Belar said.

For example, educators--including psychology departments--must become more collaborative and deliberate in their curriculum design, said Jane Close Conoley, PhD, professor and dean of education at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She said that she rarely sees faculty consider how each course fits with the one before and after it in a program.

Louis G. Tassinary, PhD, JD, associate dean and director of graduate studies in the college of architecture at Texas A&M University, encouraged educators to infuse their curricula with an educational tool common in architecture--the studio. These intensive six-hour courses bring students together to tackle real world problems and often include a community service component, such as redesigning a local public building. And since each studio builds off the one before it, students make the connection between theory and practice.

"We need to get to the point where it's not about owning a course, it's about owning an outcome," Tassinary said. "Studios help students fit together the pieces of the puzzle."

Further Reading

For more information on the LEAP campaign, go to www.aacu.org/leap.