The Chronicle of Higher Education featured an interview with Alexander Astin regarding his new book Are You Smart Enough? How Colleges’ Obsession With Smartness Shortchanges Students. Astin founded UCLA’s Higher Education Research Institute, he’s been studying college students and faculty for decades.  He said this:

“When the entire system of higher education gives favored status to the smartest students, even average students are denied equal opportunities.  If colleges were instead to be judged on what they added to each student’s talents and capacities, then applicants at every level of academic preparation might be equally valued.”

We do play favorites in higher ed.  We select and evaluate based on grades and test scores.  We use those metrics to decrease the size of our pool to make selection easier (but not better) and we eliminate candidates that don’t fit our narrow description of smart.  We are missing out on a whole lot of smart, because we are settling for “quick and easy”…and safe.

My question is do we really know what “smart” is anyway.  When we select based on grades and test scores students suffer because we either judged them to be smart or not smart.  There’s not a lot of difference between a 30 on the ACT and a 29… but the 30 was selected and the 29 received a “Dear John” letter.  Full disclosure, I dreamed of a 29.

I want to go back to “easy” and “safe”.  Those words don’t just define our selection process.  We also want our students to BE “easy” and “safe”.  If we consider using Strengthsfinder as a reference point,  we would probably say our colleges want students with Learner and Input.  Those two themes are easy because when we take a short-cut on our teaching it doesn’t matter that much.  Students with Learner and Input strengths figure it out anyway, and as long as you provide those themes with content and a way to qualify their mastery they are pretty satisfied.  But Competition is another story.  Teaching Competition is neither easy nor safe.  These students compete with each other, they compete with the teacher, they want to know and be known as the person with the highest score.  They create tension in the classroom.  They have the audacity to show up to office hours to fight for another point on the test.

I teach a class of incoming freshmen business students.  I had 180 students this spring and the number one theme across the entire class was Competition.  That theme is 26th in the overall database of 13+million completes.  Conversely  Learner was in the bottom 5 for my class.  That theme is in the top 5 for our overall database, and I’m guessing is in the top 5 of all our faculty.  Imagine the disconnect between our students and their instructors.  Professors are offended that their students don’t possess the love of learning that they do.  And our students are bewildered when professors don’t provide a reason for why their class is relevant and how it’s going to help them be successful or “win” in the future.  The College of Business probably attracts this demographic of students because, Hey! it’s the business college.  But when they get here we want to them to act like budding academics.  How do we reconcile this disparity?  First, I can probably find a way to better prepare my students to understand that  how they view their education is not shared by their professors.  I need to help them understand their strengths in light of their instructors’ strengths  and give them strategies for adapting.  And, second, we need to help instructors understand the strengths our students possess and as Astin said, design strategies that add to each student’s talents and capacities.

 By Mark Pogue, Executive Director, Clifton Strengths Institute