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Dispelling the Myth of Average

A man putting books back in a library shelf

Harvard professor Todd Rose’s work on the myth of average (see his TED talk) has been the topic of recent conversations within our academic team. The concept that the current classroom pedagogical models fail because they attempt to cater to the average student strikes a chord with us. In addition to our focus on using data analytics to identify individual students’ learning experiences, we have also focused much effort on considering the outlier experience at both ends of the spectrum.

For example, Southern New Hampshire University’s newest competency-based education model, SNHU accel, works to enable highly successful students to accelerate based upon the strengths they bring to the program. At the same time we focus a great deal of our efforts on those who are likely to struggle with various elements that may or may not be directly tied to the content or skill set being assessed. Just-in-time modules, personalized tutoring, webinar captioning and writing pointers (even in courses in which writing skills are not directly tied to the course outcomes) are just a few ways that we work to address student’s individual needs.

Still, it is important to distinguish between the creation of an individualized learning experience and the actual outcomes of any given program. In the examples he uses, Rose focused on how varied learning experiences can permit students to take advantage of their learning strengths and develop in opportunity areas. He does not suggest that we should create different standards by which those students are summatively measured. Billy, the gifted student who excels at scientific thinking but struggles with reading comprehension, becomes the class star because new tools enable him to demonstrate his mastery of the area of study by engaging resources differently. The teacher does not lower the bar; she connects with her student in a way that enables her to identify correctly the circumstances in which he will thrive.

Which brings me to my key point. Rose does not extrapolate that if Billy had failed it would have been the result of a poor teacher; instead he notes that pairing the right tools with a teacher who is aware of the opportunities will help more students succeed. Rather than create a culture of blame involving the teacher and the student, this presents a culture of opportunity to individualize the learning experience far more than ever before.

A few weeks ago Jaymes Myers wrote here about our efforts at SNHU to create a new learning framework focused on relevant, engaging models that we hope will be more effective precisely because they acknowledge the need for individual experiences rather than a one-size-fits-all concept. But this only works if we empower instructors to make connections with students that cater to their needs.

At the same time we have to ensure high-quality academic performance outcomes. This is where it gets tricky for instructors who have grown comfortable with traditional models. In the College of Online and Continuing Education, we are using a combination of academicians and practicing professionals (one of my deans calls this a “pracademic” consolidation) to determine outcomes and valid ways to accurately measure those outcomes. Whether it’s for accounting or psychology, our subject-matter experts can come to agreement ultimately on the skill level and knowledge content a student should be able to demonstrate through application. These collaborative, highly credentialed teams can set standards of performance, just as the EPA or FAA can identify quality or performance. This makes some faculty uncomfortable, as it requires students in all classes to ultimately meet the same outcomes.

I would posit that creating variations on outcomes themselves has never been the value of instruction. The true power of instruction goes back to what Rose points out — creating a non-standard learning experience for each student. The most skilled instructors are not those who picked one textbook over another or developed some unique outcome for one of thousands of Introduction to Management, Psychology, American History, etc., course sections. They are the instructors who were able to create an environment in which they could connect with the individual student well enough to know which tools and experiences will help that student across the finish line. Those are the instructors we must applaud and hold up as the standard.

This has not always been possible for most institutions. Budgetary constraints, business models and crowded classrooms have not allowed for such data to inform the classroom experience in ways easily accessible and useable by instructors. Even Rose notes that the examples he cites were pilot programs with early adopters. These are opportunities moving forward more than failures of the past, and they present us with some excellent ways to rethink our learning environments and equip the next Billy out there to make his unique contribution to the human experience.