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ND to be part of four-year liberal arts study

Joe Piarulli | Thursday, March 30, 2006

Incoming members of the Class of 2010 may find that while they study for their first exams, someone else may be studying them. Beginning next fall, Notre Dame will become one of 18 colleges to take part in a national liberal arts study conducted by the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College.

The study will follow approximately 5,500 students nationwide – 400 at Notre Dame – throughout their four years at college.

According to Dennis Jacobs, vice president and associate provost for undergraduate and international studies, the study will bring a new perspective on education at Notre Dame.

“We’re continually, as an institution, trying to assess how we are progressing in all of our academic goals,” Jacobs said. “What makes this particular collaboration unique and attractive is that it involves a very nationally renowned team of investigators who are … independent of Notre Dame, and that gives a fresh eye to things.”

According to the Center’s Web site, the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education has two fundamental goals. First, it aims “to learn what teaching practices, programs, and institutional structures support liberal arts education” and second, it seeks “to develop faculty-friendly and institutionally-useful methods of assessing liberal arts education.”

The focus of the study will be on the development of seven areas – effective reasoning and problem solving, inclination to inquire and lifelong learning, integration of learning, intercultural effectiveness, moral reasoning and character, leadership and well-being.

The study will provide the University with comparative data showing how Notre Dame performs in relation to other colleges.

“When something shows up you want to say, ‘Well is that typical, is that characteristic?’ When you have a large enough pool you can answer that question,” Jacobs said.

Notre Dame was also selected to spotlight 50 students at the University who will be interviewed periodically as part of the study. Those members of the Class of 2010 will likely be chosen during the first several months they are on campus – likely based in part on the information that comes back from the initial survey, Jacobs said.

“What we’re really interested in is, what is the value added by a Notre Dame education, what is the transformative effect of the … experiences that we design into the curriculum as well as the co-curricular activities?,” Jacobs said.

Such co-curricular activities would include international studies and undergraduate research – activities in which the University invests time, energy and resources.

“I think what this study will help us understand is in what ways [those activities] add value,” Jacobs said.

Students involved in the study will not be forced into doing anything differently than other students on campus, Jacobs said.

“We picked a large enough sample – 400 – that these students will just, in a sense, scatter across the University and do what they’ll do,” he said. “The kinds of experiences they’ll choose to do will be varied, which is good.”

Jacobs said the unpredictable nature of students’ choices will be one of the defining points of the study.

“We would love to sample all of our academic majors, but that may not happen,” he said. “In the end, hopefully, mostly all of [the students] will graduate, so we’ll have some end point to all of this, but along the way they will have taken different paths.”

According to Jacobs, this longitudinal study will be significantly more helpful than previous one-time studies. Senior surveys, which ask students to reflect on past experiences, may not capture the crucial moments of their lives at Notre Dame, he said.

Jacobs said while there will be some commonalities – many of the students being studied will travel abroad, as 54 percent of Notre Dame undergraduates choose to do so – the results of the study are unforeseeable due to individual endeavors including participation in student government and internships.

“That mosaic of experiences will undoubtedly affect their development in different ways,” he said. “I want to keep an open mind. I don’t want to predict, but I imagine that because [the study is] looking at seven different dimensions to liberal arts education that [Notre Dame will] have certain strengths, but we’ll also have some shortcomings.”

Jacobs said these shortcomings may be relative to other schools, and may be rather unexpected.

“This is more of a listening exercise … the students will have opportunities over the years to tell their story, and by listening with a set of independent ears – not from Notre Dame – we may hear about things that we thought were some of our strong points that might not be so strong,” he said.

Ideally, Jacobs said, the study will not interfere with students’ lives, and will take note of how liberal arts at Notre Dame affect students in terms of their civic engagements, ethical frameworks and passion for learning. Feedback on such topics will provide the University with more self-indicative information than ever before.

“We don’t want the study in any way to limit or perturb [students’] experience at Notre Dame – we just want to capture it. We want to document the kinds of experiences they’re having,” he said.

The conclusions of the study may not be perfect when the study is finished, but the information will be valuable, Jacobs said.

“It’s not just an answer in the end where we either pat ourselves on the back or not, it’s a study that gives us the kind of feedback to make programmatic improvements,” he said.