How to Develop Learners Who Are Consistently Curious and Questioning

By Jamie E. Scurry, with Ariel Wilburn, Alex Villagomez and Mike McCarthy

In the U.S., postsecondary education has long driven individual social mobility and collective economic prosperity. Nonetheless, the nation’s labor force includes 54 million adults who lack a college degree; of those, nearly 34 million have no college experience at all. In the 21st century, these numbers cannot sustain us.

Returning to learning: Adults’ success in college is key to America’s future; Lumina Foundation for Education; 2007

This is a growing problem faces higher education and our nation. Retention and graduation rates are deplorable, particularly for disadvantaged students. Far too many who enter the gates of higher education leave before earning a postsecondary degree. And for those who do earn their credential, there is a growing and fair concern over quality of learning—students’ ability to perform in the workforce, to solve problems, to think critically and to communicate effectively across different media and contexts. The reasons are many: pedagogy focused in learning from textbooks and lectures more than doing and designing, a disconnect between real-world needs and industrial-era academies, financial constraints for students and for institutions, and a market guided by rankings based on prestige and not student performance post-graduation. Students setting their own paths and purposes for learning are not often enough a central part of the higher education equation.

In a society that reaches for silver-bullet solutions, higher education is not immune from widespread attempts to raise graduation rates through scaling one-size-fits-all models at lower and lower costs. Yet we at Big Picture Learning believe any true, long-term solution that will produce more graduates with high-quality degrees must be one-learner-at-a-time and competency-based, and not applied in broad brushstrokes to produce quick results. The same terms we use, such as “student-centered” and “performance-based,” are often employed in circumstances we feel are merely tweaking around the edges one reform at a time. In contrast, we have spent the past two years piloting a model that is drastically different: College Unbound.

College Unbound brings to higher education the Big Picture Learning philosophy, which has grown over 15 years to a network of more than 70 U.S. schools and almost 60 schools internationally. With initial funding from Lumina Foundation for Education, Nellie Mae Education Foundation, Staples Foundation for Learning and individual donors, College Unbound launched its first program, College Unbound @ Roger Williams University, in fall 2009, accepting a cohort of students that will graduate in May 2012. Southern New Hampshire University will welcome its first group of College Unbound @ SNHU students in fall 2011. The word “unbound” in our title does not mean that our students do not attend college—in fact, all are thriving on their path to a degree. Instead, we hope with this name to sum up our work in “unbundling” traditional notions of higher education and creating a new paradigm for 21st-century college.

College Unbound’s design: student retention with high quality of learning

Traditional curricula are typically text-to-life: students first encounter facts and skills from books, lectures and other academic resources, and are usually only later—if ever—asked to apply this learning in the way that those actually working in the field do on a daily basis. Not only does such a model of learning miss the opportunity to motivate and engage students in real-world work, but it is also no wonder that 63% of employers surveyed by the American Association of Schools and Universities said that too many recent college graduates enter the workforce without the necessary tools for success.

As a key both to student retention and quality of learning, we see College Unbound as a “life-to-text” model, a design that puts students in the driver’s seat of their educational journey. Students begin their studies focused not on which course they need to take, but instead on questions and ideas that are important to them. They then ground these purposes for learning within the actual problems and questions facing their community and career or interest. The internship projects that our College Unbound students spend two days building and executing with a professional advisor are just as, if not more, important than the learning students do off-site. The other three days a week are spent broadening and deepening their theoretical knowledge to support of their projects and their individualized plans for developing all required competencies for graduation.

Our communities of College Unbound learners excel because this program offers:

  • real-world skill and knowledge acquisition as students tackle workplace and community problems with professional advisors;
  • integrated seminars where students engage in interdisciplinary studies to gain the required broad as well as field-based skills and knowledge;
  • individual learning plans that start with each student’s needs, interests, and modes of inquiry; and
  • all remedial and enrichment education embedded into students’ learning planning and interest-based projects.

Throughout these program features, students’ work is highly collaborative as a means of building a professional and academic network and providing the necessary support they need. They meet on a weekly basis with faculty, professional advisors, mentors, writing coaches, tutors and their peers. The experience of working carefully and closely with faculty mentors on significant projects is profound and deeply rewarding, increasing student engagement and motivation and ensuring that their degrees will be grounded in real-world practice.

College Unbound’s student-centered evaluation and assessment designs

Evaluation and assessment are critical components of ensuring College Unbound’s effectiveness and student growth. All assessments are used to offer real-time feedback and lead to any necessary programmatic and student-level adjustments. To that end, students have an active voice in their own—and the program’s—growth and progress. For example, students participate in board meetings, funding meetings and evaluations of program components. In addition to program evaluation done by an outside program documenter, students are a central part of assessing College Unbound’s success through surveys, student interviews, student evaluations and documentation of student work.

Central to our program’s effectiveness are clear measures of student learning. Therefore, we also use a variety of formative and summative assessments to gauge student thinking and application of the skills demarcated in our detailed learning goals. Students are assessed in four categories of learning:

  • Broad Knowledge—Making Interdisciplinary Connections;
  • Critical Methods of Inquiry, Personal Growth and Development;
  • Demonstrated Valued Added; and
  • Applied Knowledge and Skills/Civic Engagement.

The outcomes we have adopted take into account all of the Essential Learning Outcomes published by the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise, as well as additional outcomes based on our own research and experience. Our learning goals are in alignment with students’ ability to show competency in these rigorous goals and is a prerequisite to what we believe is a truly performance-based degree.

To monitor students’ competency development, they are evaluated using learning goal rubrics by their faculty and professional advisors through weekly meetings and varied assignments and projects. Student internship project work, seminar assignments, journals, reflective and critical writing, surveys and interviews all provide formative opportunities for those working closely with the students to provide feedback and assist students in documenting their growth.

In addition, students do weekly self-reflections and engage in self-evaluation to help them track their own progress. We seek to use portfolios and public exhibitions in innovative ways to do accurate summative assessments of what students have learned at each mid-semester and final point. Instead of exams, our students speak about, demonstrate, and are challenged on their work during public exhibitions in front of faculty, professional advisors, field experts, community members and peers. Portfolios and exhibitions allow students to document, share, and self-evaluate their work, creating a perfect opportunity for faculty and students to collaboratively assess their learning plan progress to revise them before the next semester’s work.

The College Unbound student experience

For example, Michael Reaves, a student at College Unbound @ Roger Williams University is interested in history, specifically the Civil Rights Movement, community and education. Through his internship at the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence, Michael explores his questions and purpose to gain the knowledge and skills required to be a community organizer, leader and educator. In his freshman year, Reaves underwent 30 hours of professional training to become a certified trainer of nonviolence. He led a high school partnership program where he and a team of trainers taught an eight-week non-violence workshop to more than 90 high school students. Each group of students was responsible for a community event and a culminating final day of celebration and sharing of project work.

Reaves also participated in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s 50th-anniversary conference, traveled to China and attends seminars, lectures, and salons offered throughout Providence and Rhode Island. He has listened to and spoken with leaders from the Civil Rights moment and experts in the field. This, year he is spearheading the development of a new community response team for the Institute. His seminars on leadership, grant writing and the social sciences support his project and intellectual growth. Along with a College Unbound student colleagues, Reaves is planning to create a summer community leadership program that brings at-risk students from Providence to Israel to work with and learn with their Israeli counterparts.

Alex Villagomez began his freshman year exploring his broad questions on sustainability through an internship at StackDesignBuild (Stack). Stack is a unique contractor focused on affordable green building, sustainable design, and innovative technologies. In his first year, Villagomez learned how to use RevIt and Sketch Up, how to hand draw sketches, and how to create 3D models. His  main project was to design six options for the interior of Stack’s new office space. He met with Stack owners, ran project meetings, and gave a formal presentation of his drawings and models. Villagomez also assisted on three of Stack’s other projects: the Box Office, Containers to Clinics, and Barmonde Residence. He spent the summer in Soweto, South Africa, where he learned about leadership/entrepreneurship, urban agriculture and green energy.

After his first year of work at Stack, his seminars, and his summer travel, Villagomez honed his questions around sustainability to focus on passive solar design. This year, he is serving as the project manager and designer for a sustainable tree house classroom project to be built at Driftwood Stables, a leadership camp in New Hampshire. His tree house will use passive solar design and may draw on small-scale green energy technologies including a solar panel system and rainwater catchment system. His work is undergirded by seminar learning, workshops and conferences focused on passive solar design, leadership, project management and grant writing. To maximize learning and application of the theories involved in this project, Villagomez is also taking a class on passive solar design at the Apeiron Institute for Sustainable Living in Providence.

Finally, Ariel Wilburn began her journey at College Unbound with a focus on psychology and the stated purpose of working with children of domestic violence. Wilburn spent her first year interning at a shelter for women and children of domestic violence. Under the guidance of her professional advisor and the theories learned through her seminar work, she created a curriculum focused on social development of children ages three to six. Wilburn supported her work at the shelter by studying theories of child development—from Jean Piaget’s to Barbara Rogoff’s—by auditing a course at Brown University on social and culture context of learning and development, and by attending state-level child advocacy meetings with her mentor.

Over the summer, Wilburn brought her skills, knowledge, and interests to Salvador Brazil, where she continued working with underserved children. In her sophomore year, she has merged her passion of spoken-word poetry with her purpose of helping children and transitioned to the Institute for the Study and Practice of Nonviolence. In this internship, she is creating and then leading a group of spoken-word poets—VENT, Voices Encouraging Nonviolent Thinking. This corps of poets will teach nonviolent principles to local school students. Like Reaves and Villagomez, Wilburn completed 30 hours of professional training. She has become a certified trainer of nonviolence.

Lessons learned

As these experiences show, our two years of experience with the College Unbound pilot are successfully developing learners who are consistently curious, wondering, pondering, uncertain, speculating, questioning, stuck and caught up. We believe such students are clearly more likely to stay in school through their graduation day and, because they are learning for their own purposes and interests, much more likely to develop the rigorous set of competencies required for a high-level college degree.

Although the current trajectory of higher education is toward scaling one-size-fits-all models at a lower cost, our 15 years of raising graduation rates in the Big Picture Learning network argues for sticking with the tried and true about how people learn. No matter our age, no matter our background, we all learn best when allowed to do so in a way we find meaningful and when supported toward high-level goals. College Unbound is a high-touch model without a doubt; as our program continues, we believe adding a greater high-tech component will allow for the efficiencies of scale a higher education does require—without losing the innovations we believe are making a significant difference for our students.

The accompanying videos were filmed and edited by students to demonstrate their work and the College Unbound Program. The videos include footage of second-year student Ariel Wilburn and Alex Villagomez’s work and the College Unbound learning community, and first-year student Mike McCarthy’s work on digital learning and educational design. Click the links below to view the videos …



Jamie E. Scurry is co-director of College Unbound. Ariel Wilburn and Alex Villagomez are sophomores in College Unbound. Mike McCarthy is a freshman.

Related Posts: The Big Picture College: A Model High School Program Graduates (pdf); Interview with Nick Donohue of the Nellie Mae Education Foundation


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