Personal connections count most
By Jo Pitkin K'78
How do recent Hamilton students feel about their college experience? What forms of teaching and mentoring do they find most beneficial? What cultural and social experiences mean the most to them? What concerns do they have about their Hamilton education?
One Hamilton student wrote to friends and family about his "exile in upper New York." But taking a personal interest in his education, his professors inspired him to pursue a career in teaching rather than law, finance or diplomatic service. They introduced him to the poetry of Dante and Provençal troubadours and engaged him in long talks after classes. While he avoided parties and felt that he didn't fit in socially, he pursued his talent for writing and contributed poems to Hamilton's literary magazine. That transfer student, the illustrious poet Ezra Pound, came to the Hill in the fall of 1903.
Interestingly, two independent assessment tools, the 2007 Higher Education Data Sharing Senior Survey and the Mellon Assessment Project, reveal that many Hamilton students today report similar experiences. A century after Pound, contemporary students enjoy many of the same advantages — and face some of the same challenges — of an education at Hamilton.
"What we've learned," says Dan Chambliss, the Eugene M. Tobin Distinguished Professor of Sociology, "is that a Hamilton education rests on the strength of personal relationships the student has — relationships with friends and with teachers. Those personal connections drive all the other good things that come. Hamilton is first and foremost a community. All of the educational good we offer really depends on that."
Directed by Chambliss, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Project for Assessment of Liberal Arts Education, known as the Mellon Assessment Project, is a 10-year study that was launched at Hamilton College in 1999 and began charting students in 2001. Its purpose is to answer a deceptively simple question: "How is the College doing?" It is designed to evaluate learning in liberal arts colleges and to establish objective sources of assessment.
Among many other activities, the project conducted a comprehensive study of writing improvement over time. Researchers collected 1,100 college papers (other than senior theses), took some precautions to avoid skewing the findings, and had an outside panel of writing teachers and educators evaluate series of papers from individual but anonymous students on the basis of eight criteria for effective writing. The readers found that they could almost always order the papers chronologically — from high school to senior year on the Hill — and they saw a particularly dramatic leap in writing skill during the first year of college.
The Mellon Assessment Project also assessed public speaking at the College by videotaping and evaluating nearly 100 oral presentations by sophomores and seniors. Roughly 60 percent of Hamilton students have public speaking opportunities in their classes, but the project found that students desire even more, despite the customary jitters when it's their turn to speak. And it found that a little practice in public speaking goes a long way: As with writing, seniors typically had more fully developed speaking skills, but the most dramatic gains came early in college.
Other teaching-related findings: Students lean heavily on professors' reputations and other students' opinions when choosing courses, and students' experiences in introductory courses — for better and for worse — play a crucial role in their decisions about what coursework and concentrations to pursue.
"You need teachers who want to teach and students who want to learn, and the college must provide opportunities for those groups to get together," Chambliss says. "Scheduling decisions, we found, are much more important than usually thought. Getting students in touch with exciting teachers in the first year is also very important."
The practical aim of the project is to find ways to improve teaching and academic policy at the College. While there is no direct, formal implementation of results, Chambliss shares the outcomes and communicates trends through annual reports to Hamilton's faculty, administration and trustees. The impact has been substantial, both in honing and extending those values and practices at which Hamilton excels — such as writing and public speaking — and in identifying less productive ones. An example: The College's sophomore seminars, introduced in 2001, were dropped after the project found that the seminars were not fully serving their aims.
Like the Mellon effort, the Higher Education Data Sharing Senior Survey is a means of assessing Hamilton students' satisfaction with their college experience. Under the direction of Assistant Dean of Faculty for Institutional Research Gordon Hewitt, the "exit poll" survey is given to seniors each spring beginning in early April. It measures students' responses to areas of interest such as writing and communication skills, study abroad and other academic-related activities, as well as campus life. Though voluntary, the Senior Survey is typically answered annually by 75 percent to 85 percent of the senior class at Hamilton.
In terms of academic success:
- The majority of Hamilton seniors who responded to the 2007 survey indicated that they felt their abilities to write effectively and think analytically and logically were greatly enhanced.
- Exactly half felt that their abilities to speak well were greatly enhanced.
- Fewer than half of the respondents, however, felt that their abilities to lead and supervise groups, formulate creative ideas and solutions or develop awareness of social problems were greatly enhanced.
- Seniors in the 2007 class had very positive experiences with their first-year advisors, their major advisors, and campus computer services, yet were unlikely to participate in activities such as sexual harassment programs, independent study or residence hall apprenticeship.
- Half the respondents to the 2007 survey indicated that they had participated in study abroad.
"The data consistently show … that students are highly satisfied with the personal-contact engagement they have with the faculty," Hewitt says, "which is what we are all about as a small liberal arts institution."
The Senior Survey also prompts students to evaluate campus services and residential life. In 2007:
- 76 percent of the Hamilton respondents expressed satisfaction with social life on the Hill.
- 59 percent expressed satisfaction with ethnic and racial diversity on campus, and 58 percent expressed satisfaction with the climate for minority students.
- The respondents were also satisfied with career services (75 percent), health services (65 percent) and campus safety (72 percent).
Both the ratings and the open-ended responses of the 2007 Senior Survey indicate that 91 percent of Hamilton seniors overall felt satisfied with their college experience. The survey found that 74 percent of the respondents would select Hamilton College again if given the chance. This percentage is higher than that of respondents at peer institutions. On the other hand, some students voiced dissatisfaction with what they identified as a lack of diversity in the student body and faculty, with social life on campus — and with the cold weather and Hamilton's geographic isolation, a modern reminder of Ezra Pound's lament about "exile in upper New York." Furthermore, the 2007 survey revealed a feeling on the part of some seniors that the current Hamilton administration is too bureaucratic.
Still, the most recent Senior Survey notes that student satisfaction has been on the rise throughout the past three years. There also is a difference in overall satisfaction between women and men, and between white students and students of color. Women at Hamilton were generally more satisfied with their education, their advisors and their social lives than men. In fact, the student who tends to be most satisfied with the Hamilton experience is white, female, an "A" student, a sorority member and a natural sciences major. On the other hand, women students expressed less satisfaction with racial and ethnic diversity on campus.
"Are we a perfect college across the board? No, we have areas in which we can improve," Hewitt says. "But what we do extremely well — fostering the teacher-student relationship — is instrumental to a high-quality academic experience."
Although more than 100 years have elapsed since Ezra Pound studied on the Hill, hallmarks of his Hamilton education, along with the more recent contributions of Kirkland College's pedagogical legacy, still remain: close advising and mentoring, an emphasis on writing and speaking, small classes and an open curriculum. With the help of such assessment tools as the Mellon Assessment Project and the Senior Survey, Hamilton's approach to liberal arts will continue to evolve in the 21st century. Yet despite objective assessments and judicious policy shifts, Hamilton's students ultimately bear the responsibility of making the most of their educational opportunities. As Pound himself said, "Real education must ultimately be limited to one who insists on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.