Ensure Learning Through the Social Construction of Learning

Bakersfield College

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges.

The guided pathways movement in California is now entering a second stage of implementation where serious, in-depth discussions occur across disciplines about what students really need to learn in higher education, especially in the general education aspects of their degrees. In the first stage, colleges focused on improving progression and completion. In the guided pathways framework, this work has been focused on the first three pillars: Clarify the Path; Enter the Path, and Stay on the Path. Although colleges still have work to do to produce the gains in completion they want, they now have a good idea of what needs to be put in place in their systems for those pillars and how they will work together to achieve the progression and completion goals listed in the Board of Governor’s Vision for Success.

The fourth pillar of guided pathways is “Ensure Learning.” This pillar is about clearly defining the learning outcomes in programs and courses so that they can be measured and assessed. The learning outcomes are developed to prepare students for employment or further education in the fields of importance to the colleges’ service areas. The outcomes are defined in a way that is easy for students to understand and made relevant to their future employment, to their engagement as citizens, and to becoming fulfilled human beings. If the students know what they need to do and why they need to do it, they may be more likely to make the effort to succeed.

The most exciting discussions among faculty and students can occur in the process of clearly defining the learning outcomes because they get to the heart of what faculty want students to learn and why it matters. This statement is especially true when these discussions are interdisciplinary because they necessarily move beyond specific content to what students need to become innovative, engaged, and productive members of society who are also fulfilled human beings. This conversation is part of the process of socially constructing the learning.

One of the last gatherings of faculty from across the state where these types of discussions occurred before the COVID-19 closure was the SLO Symposium held at Monterey Peninsula College in early February 2020. In her keynote address, Dr. Sonya Christian used the idea of socially constructing the learning to encourage attendees to move beyond the technical aspects of assessing student learning to the more challenging but more rewarding dialogue about what students need to learn. Most faculty now have several years of experience in assessing student learning outcomes and have various software tools to quantify assessment results and collate the results into a nice-looking report, but they need to ask whether they are assessing the right things. One influence that can encourage these discussions, one that perhaps is not normally appreciated for its potentially productive influence, is the accreditation process. The accreditation standards of the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) can encourage discussions of constructing learning in order to fulfill the missions of our colleges.

“Learning is socially constructed” means that institutions clarify what learning is for themselves and for students through a sustained, substantive, and collegial dialogue. In the higher education community, faculty wrestle together with and build consensus about what students need to learn to be engaged and productive participants in all levels of society as well as how education can re-shape or transform society for the better through what students learn at respective colleges. Faculty make such determinations through a “sustained, substantive, and collegial dialogue about student outcomes, student equity, academic quality, institutional effectiveness, and continuous improvement of student learning and achievement” as noted in ACCJC Accreditation Standard I.B.1.

“Learning is socially constructed” also means that the community decides what needs to be learned; it is not imposed from on high in top-down edicts, nor is it an impersonal objective law of nature. The community decides. The community determines the reality in which people live and work. In his book Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Yuval Noah Harari describes fictional realities as the common myths or paradigms society holds collectively in its imagination that enable members to cooperate in large numbers of thousands to billions of individuals. Such fictional realities include religious myths, national stories such as the equal opportunity and the rule of law in the U.S., judicial systems rooted in legal myths such as laws, justice, human rights, and corporations, and economic myths like money. Although Harari concentrates on political and economic structures, the concept of fictional realities can be used in discussions about learning because thoughts on what it means to be an engaged, productive, and fulfilled individual are shaped by the fictional realities of the culture. Furthermore, these discussions about learning can be productive, leading to necessary changes because no biological or physical barrier or law of nature prevents the changes. Colleges can come to a collectively shared understanding of what learning is and what should be learned in higher education.

The ACCJC accreditation standards describe who the community must include in that social construction of learning. Leaders of excellent institutions create and encourage innovation by supporting “administrators, faculty, staff, and students, no matter what their official titles, in taking initiative for improving the practices, programs, and services in which they are involved” (Standard IV.A.1). Excellent institutions have policies that make “provisions for student participation and consideration of student views in those matters in which students have a direct and reasonable interest” (Standard IV.A.2). The consensus building of determining what students need to learn needs to include students in the dialogue.

The community examines the assumptions it makes regarding what the outcomes mean and how the academic and co-curricular activities fit together. Including students in the dialogue enables colleges to determine how to communicate the meaning of the outcomes and how the pieces fit together in an understandable way for the students so they can see the reasons for the various steps of the path, especially the general education aspects of their programs. The general education component requires honest, cross-disciplinary dialogue about what the course and program learning outcomes mean to the faculty in a given program and to the faculty outside the program.

Colleges do not do this work in a vacuum. Beyond internal conversations within colleges and the surrounding communities of their service areas, the dialogue also occurs within the broader academic community of the nation and with tradition. While colleges can decide the specifics of the learning outcomes and their meaning, the Academy has stated that the dialogue must include what needs to be learned “in communication competency, information competency, quantitative competency, analytic inquiry skills, ethical reasoning, and the ability to engage diverse perspectives” (Standard II.A.11), competencies and abilities that the spring and summer of 2020 have shown are absolutely critical to a sustainable society. The general education learning outcomes must “include a student’s preparation for and acceptance of responsible participation in civil society, skills for lifelong learning and application of learning, and a broad comprehension of the development of knowledge, practice, and interpretive approaches in the arts and humanities, the sciences, mathematics, and social sciences” (Standard II.A.12).

Clarifying the learning is as much for faculty, staff, and administration as it is for the students because colleges need to be very intentional about their roles in society and how they prepare the future workforce of engaged citizens who are fulfilled human beings. With that intentionality, institutions are able to make students see the relevance of the tasks presented in the courses and of the courses themselves to the students’ lives after they leave the college as well as the relevance even to their lives outside the classroom at the moment.

Another component of the project of ensuring learning is how colleges get the students to internalize the learning outcomes. When students internalize their learning, they will perform much better and enjoy the challenges. The great majority of community college students are first-generation college students who need applied learning to internalize the instruction. High impact practices such as internships, student employment, field trips, and project-based learning enable students to integrate what they have learned in the various classrooms. The students construct knowledge for themselves. Interdisciplinary dialogue among faculty, students, and the wider community to clarify what needs to be learned—the student learning outcomes—and then create the applied learning experiences are how colleges will be able to ensure that learning happens in a guided pathways environment.

Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges. (2014). Accreditation Standards Adopted June 2014. Retrieved from the Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges website: https://accjc.org/eligibility-requirements-standards-policies/#accredit…
Harari, Y. (2015). Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harper Perennial.
Strobel, N. and Christian, S. What is the Guided Pathways Model? Leadership Abstracts, January 2017. Retrieved from https://www.bakersfieldcollege.edu/download/18362.