Measuring What Matters: Major Focus vs. Foundational Skills Instruction

Our ongoing research into the foundational skills crisis opens up a lot of interesting conversations. We’re living through a major shift in education right now, as students and institutions react to changes in technology, culture, and the economy. Many of our biggest questions right now revolve around the challenges of creating a coherent narrative when so many aspects of our environment are in flux. 

How can instructors measure student progress with meaningful data? How should institutions develop their programming and market their campus identity to prospective students? How do students feel confident they’re acquiring the right skill set for a successful career? 

Last month, our VP of Partnerships, Brent Keltner, asked members of different regional consortia how many were confident that, given a week or so, they’d be able to track down the data on how many of their students graduate with a degree in biology. Hands around the room shot up—this wasn’t a complicated question. 

Then he asked, “And how many of you could tell me what percentage of your students graduate with strong critical thinking skills?” 


It isn’t that higher ed doesn’t value critical thinking (and related foundational skills like information literacy and communication). The opposite is true: critical thinking is almost universally regarded among the key outputs of a college education. But teaching and assessing critical thinking is subtle work, and most institutions around the country don’t have campuswide systems in place to accomplish this effectively or accurately. 

For example, Texas colleges and universities in the ICUT consortium had, on average, very strong foundational skills instruction in their FYE programming to help students start their academic careers on the right foot. The challenge they now face is: how do you build off of that programming and extend it deeper into students’ fields of study and career planning? 

One strategy that has served institutions in the Appalachian College Association well has been to connect reflective learning across experiences. In doing so, they create a knowledge transfer that extends through the Gen Ed curriculum, major disciplines, extracurriculars, service learning, and internships. 

Pressure is mounting from businesses looking to hire graduates with strong foundational skills and students who want to ensure they leave their post-secondary investment equipped for the world of work. The campuses that will thrive in this landscape will be the institutions that are able to craft an identity around holistic learning—with the assessment data to back it up. 
We’re excited to share more of our research into this underexplored topic in early 2020, so stay tuned! In the meantime, for case studies in how institutions have overcome these challenges, check out our white paper on the foundational skills crisis. You can also watch this webinar recap/recording on Integrating Foundational Skills Instruction Throughout the College Experience, featuring Dr. Susan Burns of Clarke University.