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Business Officer Magazine
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Student Success Strategies

Kaplan Higher Education’s Peter Smith discusses five approaches for enhancing student success.

By John Walda

In the March 2011 issue of Business Officer, NACUBO President and CEO John Walda interviewed Peter Smith, senior vice president of academic strategies and development for Kaplan Higher Education, who discussed the role of for-profit institutions in meeting America's higher education needs. Here they continue their conversation.

JOHN WALDA: What are some important innovations taking place at Kaplan with regard to student success?

PETER SMITH: I can name five approaches we are taking that I think are striking.

 1. Trial period. The first is called the Kaplan Commitment. We decided that until we arrive at an appropriate diagnostic that is predictive of academic success-other than prior educational attainment, which is a pretty good predictor-we will let students enroll for a free five-week introductory period, which is half the length of a term. If at the end of five weeks, they are failing or we feel they aren't going to succeed, we can ask students to leave. Likewise, if they feel they signed up for something that didn't turn out to be what they expected, they can opt out with no academic or financial penalty. This is a model that I think other for-profit and not-for-profit institutions could adopt, especially with regard to serving at-risk students.

 2. Course-level outcomes. A second approach is our commitment to developing learning outcomes at the individual course level. For instance, we can compare what is learned from different instructors across multiple sections of the same course and can track what individual students are learning. From this, we are building a much clearer record of which parts of the curriculum appear to be working well or not working and are developing a continuous improvement process internally to strengthen teaching, course design, course evaluation, and support services-all critical elements in any educational enterprise. The idea is to arrive at a high degree of consistency from course to course to assure a proper level of rigor and quality of content.

 At the same time, we are working to build in sufficient flexibility so that faculty members can teach to their strengths and interpret the curriculum, as long as they incorporate the same core components that will lead to consistent learning outcomes for students. While we're in the early stages of implementation, we've had some very positive results so far.

3. Advanced placement. A third innovation is what we call learning recognition and portability. Any adult learner can assemble all his prior learning, formal and informal, against course equivalencies, and with a third-party independent evaluation can get advanced placement based on a hard analysis of what he already knows and is able to perform. Our longer-term objective with this initiative includes identifying partner colleges to form a consortium so that students have more choices about where they attend. This notion of learning recognition and portability is, I think, hugely important going forward. 

4. Adaptive learning. We're also doing some interesting work in cognitive adaptive task analysis, curriculum development, and course design. In the future, we hope to present a customized curriculum that meets students at the place where they need to learn. For instance, if students understand a concept, they can skip what they have already mastered and move on. Conversely, where students don't understand something or run into a problem, additional practice is provided.

5. Dual-purpose skill building. The final example I'll describe has to do with the general education program at Kaplan. We have developed a matrix using our course learning system that indicates overlapping outcomes throughout the curriculum. For instance, a course in psychology might also test a student's critical thinking skills, or an exercise in a criminal justice course might require a written component that assesses writing proficiency. The idea is that you can teach the substance of the course and at the same time evaluate a student's problem-solving or writing skills, for instance.

The extraordinary power of technology allows us to identify skill mastery at multiple levels. Thinking like a historian and writing well are two skills that often go together, but they can also be evaluated separately. This adds depth to the learning experience and gives real power to the learner who might be able to move more quickly through course material because he or she is strengthening multiple skills at the same time.

JOHN WALDA is president and CEO of NACUBO.