Maturation process plays more of a role in learning and development of college students

October 14 2008

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. - How well young people learn and develop during their college years may be due more to the normal process of maturing rather than the college experience itself, according to a new student assessment tool developed by researchers at Indiana State University.

The University Learning Outcomes Assessment (UniLOA) is an indicator of student growth, learning and development, said Mark Frederick, assistant to the vice president of student affairs for research and assessment. The assessment results can be used by faculty, administrators and student affairs personnel to support evaluation, planning and program development.

The survey examines seven areas of a student's life - critical thinking, self-awareness, communication, diversity, citizenship, membership and leadership, and relationships.

"We looked for areas of study that could be shared across campus - areas that both student affairs and the academic community could get behind," said Will Barratt, associate professor of educational administration.

Unlike many instruments that survey students' attitudes, feelings or beliefs the UniLOA is designed to measure actual behaviors. According to Frederick, The survey also differs in what it measures from the widely used National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE). The NSSE measures primarily the collegiate environment and infrastructure, the UniLOA measures strictly learning outcomes, not inputs or the collegiate environment.

"The UniLOA is both a diagnostic and a prescriptive instrument, guiding institutions in the development of supports, services, interventions, and programs aimed at improving behaviors consistent with the seven areas," Frederick explained.

The survey can be administered in paper or electronic format, which is typically completed by students in 20 minutes.

In the pilot program, data was collected from more than 3,000 students, representing 65 private and public institutions of higher education across the nation during a 24-month period. While the UniLOA is still in its initial stage of "roll-out," results from different institutions show an extremely high degree of reliability.

"The results have been very consistent," said Barratt. "The findings and patterns that have emerged have looked the same campus after campus."

Among the many findings, citizenship has a much lower score than any of the other areas measured in the survey.

"It was surprising that there wasn't a great deal of growth in this area despite what universities are doing," Barratt said.

According to the findings, students belonging to two or three formally organized organizations or activities score higher on citizenship, membership and leadership, and relationships than those belonging to more or fewer organizations. Further, students holding two leadership positions score higher in citizenship, membership and leadership than those holding fewer or more positions.

"Keep in mind, there's more to citizenship than just voting," Barratt said.

The survey also found that females engage in meaningful behaviors consistent with self-awareness and communication at a greater rate than males, while males engage in behaviors consistent with citizenship and membership/leadership at a rate greater than females.

Membership in Greek organizations also played a role in student development. Students reporting membership in a fraternity or sorority score higher on critical thinking, diversity, citizenship, membership and leadership, and relationships than students not affiliated, Frederick said.

The impact of military service on the student education experience was another surprise to the researchers.

Students with prior enlisted-level military service report engaging in behaviors consistent with the studied domains less frequently than those serving in the military reserves, and far less than those reporting no military experience at all.

"The reason for lower levels of behaviors in the various areas might be due to the reality that prior military students enter college after departing a highly prescribed experience, and when those established, prescriptive expectations no longer exist in their lives, there is a bit of foundering, rather than intentional, self-directed behavior consistent with growth, learning, and development," Frederick said.

Other findings include:

* Student ethnicity produces different score profiles for critical thinking, self awareness, communication, and membership and leadership. This result, according to researchers, could reflect subtle cultural differences in how students' behaviors indicate holistic growth, learning, and development or the degree to which learning experiences are available and accessible to different ethnic groups.

* Scores in all areas correlate more with the educational level of the mother than the father. However, socioeconomic status, as measured by receiving a Pell Grant, does not appear to be a factor impacting scores in any of the areas surveyed.

* There are substantial differences between majors in critical thinking, communication, and citizenship with students in humanities, pre-medicine/dentistry, and social sciences scoring higher than students majoring in general studies, pre-law, and recreation/sports/leisure. Undeclared majors score the lowest.

Because they are behaviorally-based measures, each item of the UniLOA is designed to suggest specific programs that can be implemented to increase positive student behaviors.

For example, the lowest scored UniLOA item, goal setting, suggests that both stand alone workshops for students on goal setting and partnering with faculty members to create opportunities in classes to have students set learning goals and to self evaluate on their own progress toward those goals would be means by which students can better develop goal setting behaviors.

"We need to help students in this area so they can succeed after graduation. Goal-setting in an integral part of life, Frederick said.

Ideally, Frederick said, institutions should assess all first-year students at the beginning and end of the first semester to establish baseline behaviors and then re-assess all students at the end of each academic year from sophomore year and beyond.

The ultimate goal of the survey is to encourage colleges and universities to embrace a holistic approach to the student experience -- shared learning outcomes of the classroom and student activities.

"We need to make the higher education experience seamless," Barratt added.

A full report of the findings, along with information about the survey tool, can be accessed online at .

About the researchers

Frederick holds a master's degree from Western Michigan University and a Ph.D. in counseling psychology from Indiana State, with a specialty in human and student development.

Barratt is an associate professor in the department of educational leadership, administration, and foundations at Indiana State. He holds a master's degree in college student personnel from Miami University and a Ph.D. in student development from the University of Iowa. His specialty areas include student development and social class.


Contacts: Mark Frederick, Office of Student Affairs Research and Assessment, Indiana State University, 812-237-3888 or

Will Barratt, department of Educational Leadership Student Affairs, Indiana State University, 812-237-2869 or

Writer: Paula Meyer, ISU Communications & Marketing, 812-237-3783 or

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How well young people learn and develop during their college years may be due more to the normal process of maturing rather than the college experience itself, according to a new student assessment tool developed by researchers at Indiana State University.

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