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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

Preface

The Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education--FIPSE to its friends--supports pilot tests of new ideas in postsecondary education. This volume describes some interesting campus experiments whose support from FIPSE ended between 1989 and 1991. In addition, the volume attempts to draw usable conclusions, asking what worked, what didn't work, and why. It has been designed to help American colleges and universities facing issues similar to those that faced the directors of these projects. Among the issues:

  • how to assess student learning objectively while protecting faculty ownership of the assessment process;

  • whether and how to use computers in the teaching of writing, music, and other humanities subjects;

  • how to humanize professional education;

  • how to raise minority--and majority--achievement in math and science at a reasonable cost;

  • how to integrate teacher education into a liberal arts curriculum.

This book is the second in a series. In October of 1990, when the first volume of Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects appeared, the entries on the various projects were described as project self-portraits polished by FIPSE staff. The same applies this time around. Of course that is not to say that FIPSE staff helped the project directors paint their work in favorable colors. It means that while the entries rest ultimately on outcomes data supplied by the project directors themselves, FIPSE staff helped to elicit important facts from the project directors by posing hard questions, and FIPSE staff drafted the entries. The leader of this rather complex undertaking has been Dr. Dora Marcus, FIPSE's specialist in project evaluation.

But the differences between this monograph and its predecessor are significant. This volume harvests the first generation of FIPSE projects which had been consciously designed from the outset to be evaluable, FIPSE having boosted its commitment to evaluation in 1986. Hence the following accounts of what did and did not work are more thorough than some of those in Lessons Learned I. A second difference is the number of projects described--30 rather than 15, with especially strong groupings in the areas of assessment and computer assisted instruction.

The temptation to draw lessons from the process of drawing lessons about postsecondary education must be resisted. (What would come next, after all?) Still, several things strike an observer. First, it is notable how powerful good outcomes data can be in selling other practitioners on a given innovation, once those practitioners are persuaded of a need. Rhetoric may be the key to raising consciousness about a certain academic problem or issue, but the innovator armed with figures to support a claim for a given strategy can often win converts quickly. On the other side, however, it is puzzling how slow many postsecondary educators are to compile evidence about what works in teaching and learning, considering the stress they typically lay on evidence in their scholarly work.

Last, in the midst of this case for drawing and sharing the lessons of reform, a note of caution. Paradoxically, it might be wise to reinvent some kinds of wheels on every campus, rather than learning directly from the achievements of others. One thinks, for example, of general education curricula. Local wrangling about the content of the general education curriculum may play an important role in the professional development of the academic community, and the resulting sense of local ownership may be crucial in motivating faculty to take on what are often seen as less glamorous teaching assignments. That the particular content of the general education curriculum at a campus may in fact have little impact on the kinds of intellectual growth most people care about makes this seem less paradoxical.

The project-portraits that follow are of course mere sketches. But all of our former project directors have indicated their willingness to fill details, and they will welcome calls from readers of this monograph who have been intrigued or inspired by what they read here.

Charles H. Karelis, Director
Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education

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