Articles & Updates

V5I2: Letter from the President

Dec. 8, 2022 ⋅ Categories: Beacon, President


Transformative Education: The Connected Student

Sonny Ramaswamy, President, NWCCU

One of my favorite pastimes is to pick up the dictionary and leaf through the various pages for particular words, not just to look up the meaning, but also the etymology.

A couple of words that I have been ruminating about recently include “belonging” and “community,” which are words in everyday use and most everyone can define the same, likely even without looking up a dictionary.

The word “belonging” is a noun of Germanic origin and refers to “an affinity for a place or situation.”

The word “community” is a noun, derived from the Latin word “communis,” and refers to the English word, “common.” Community has multiple meanings, including “a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests, and goals.” In the ecological context, community refers to “a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat.”

Similarly, “connected” is an adjective referring to being “associated or related in some respect” and “engage” as a verb is “to establish a meaningful contact or connection with.”

Yet another term of relevance here is “self-efficacy,” which the American Psychological Association (APA) defines as “an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments.” Kin to self-efficacy is “agency,” which the APA defines as “of having the power and capability to produce an effect or exert influence.”

As I contemplated writing this article on “the connected student” as being a prerequisite to transformative education, I was reminded that phrases such as belonging, community, connectedness, self-efficacy, agency, and engagement are part of the constellation of words and phrases that connote and are critical to belonging and community.

By extension then, these phrases are foundational to creating a transformative educational environment and ecosystem, which places the student at the center, as in being student centric.

When we consider student success, we immediately think of how best to enhance cognitive and subject-matter knowledge and skills via student learning experiences, i.e., the instructor-facilitated learning that occurs in and out of the classroom.

Nobel Laureate economist, James Heckman and his colleagues have demonstrated that inculcation of noncognitive skills, which promote social and emotional skills, are critical for success, countering the argument that cognitive skills matter most.

Institutions that are highly successful know that student success requires a combination of providing the relevant cognitive, subject-matter learning experiences and inculcation of noncognitive skills in a transformative educational ecosystem.

In their 2020 article on best practices to build community and promote belonging amongst college students in a virtual setting, Justin Beauchamp and colleagues at Ithaka S+R suggested that the sense of belonging straddles the social, academic, and institutional contexts. They suggested several best practices to help create community and belonging, including: ensure basic needs are met; use multimodal communication platforms; involve peer mentors; provide opportunities for students to share their experiences and follow through with appropriate support; engage parents and families; facilitate collaboration; and demonstrate care and compassion.

While Beauchamp et al. focused on students in the virtual environment during the pandemic, their contexts and best practices are relevant also to the on-campus, hybrid/HyFlex, and exclusively online environments students are availing their education in the post-pandemic institution.

Similarly, a recent report from Indiana University on belonging, suggests that students must feel like they can relate to others in the campus community, which impacts student persistence and success. These findings indicate institutions of higher education can and must develop interventions that improve students’ sense of belonging.

In a previous issue of The Beacon, I wrote that exceptionally successful institutions create highly personalized and transformative educational opportunities, catering to each student individually by offering tailored advising, classroom and experiential learning, inculcate noncognitive skills, incorporate high impact practices, provide just-in-time and emergency financial aid in the form of grants, promote community by helping create relevant social networks, ensure availability of support services such as housing, food, physical and mental healthcare, and daycare for students who are parents, and render other critical support.

The complete moral, emotional, intellectual, and civic transformation of the individual – succinctly reflected in the German word, bildung – describes and offers a framework for promoting the environment where students feel connected. There is, however, no one-size-fits-all model to create the student-centric, transformative educational ecosystem to promote community and a sense of belonging: it is context and mission dependent. However, effective programs share many elements.

Indeed, in response to an informal survey on efforts to promote community and a sense of belonging amongst students, I heard from some of our member institutions. Below I have provided one or two examples for each, from the myriad approaches offered on their campuses.

The above examples are from a fraction of NWCCU member institutions that responded to my informal query; practically every NWCCU institution has programs to promote the complete moral, emotional, intellectual, and civic transformation of the individual by creating an environment where students are connected, belong, and succeed. We see these efforts reflected in the institutional annual reports and in the accreditation self-studies and peer evaluation reports.

Ultimately, transformative education is not just about the student learning experience in the courses they take; rather it is about a combination of the learning experience and the environment where students thrive because they are supported, belong, and are connected and engaged.

For me as a life scientist, the dictionary definition of community in the ecological context, i.e., “a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat,” speaks to what community and belonging is all about.

There’s no magic formula to creating transformative education; it will require a concerted, collaborative, all-hands-on-deck campus effort.



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