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Acting on What Matters Most (in Undergraduate Education)

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By concentrating on these questions, researching the scholarly literature, and investigating a wide range of practices and programs at colleges and universities, we identified a set of six common themes we believe are at the heart of what matters most in the undergraduate experience.


The posting below looks at six themes the authors believe are at the heart of what matters most in the undergraduate experience.  It is from Chapter 8 – Acting on What Matters Most,

in the book The Undergraduate Experience: Focusing Institutions on What Matters Most, by Peter Felten , John N. Gardner , Charles C. Schroeder, Leo M. Lambert  and Betsy O. Barefoot.

Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2016 Wiley Periodicals, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.

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Rick Reis

UP NEXT: Pick Your Battles


Tomorrow’s Academy

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Acting on What Matters Most  (in Undergraduate Education)


As we said from the outset, our aim has been to write a brief, useful book that helps you and your colleagues develop the shared vision, focused will, and nimble skills necessary to do the transformational work of higher education. We believe that a necessary step in that process is to ask two important questions: What matters most in the undergraduate experience? What is possible when institutions focus on what matters most?

By concentrating on these questions, researching the scholarly literature, and investigating a wide range of practices and programs at colleges and universities, we identified a set of six common themes we believe are at the heart of what matters most in the undergraduate experience. Although colleges and universities differ in many important ways, all excellent undergraduate education has these characteristics at its core.

We recognize that diverse institutions have varying assets and face distinct challenges. One size does not fit all in higher education, nor will a single tool or approach work equally well in every context. Our framework is meant to be practical and helpful, not perfect or comprehensive. However, we firmly believe that by focusing on what matters most in your individual context, and by critically analyzing examples of what works at other colleges and universities, you will find the best strategies for your students and your institution.

This set of themes, and the book as a whole, is meant to act as a heuristic for you as you reflect on your institution, on its goals and programs, and how it could most effectively deliver on what matters most. We hope you will find the Action Principles and Questions at the end of each chapter (and collectively in Appendix A and Appendix B) useful tools for stimulating critical reflection and discussion. We will briefly restate the themes here, not simply to repeat them but to serve as a reminder for you to use them.

What Matters Most

Learning Matters

Student learning is at the heart of undergraduate education. Focusing on learning – for students, faculty, staff, administrators – is the central work of effective colleges and universities. The promotion of learning at all levels and in many ways must be the dominant and guiding criterion for as many institutional decisions as possible.

Relationships Matter

Student-faculty, student-staff, and student-student relationships account in very large measure for the powerful learning that undergraduates experience. For a college or university to sustain excellence, other structural relationships also matter a great deal, such as those between academic affairs and student affairs on campus, between the governing board and senior administrators, and between alumni and their alma mater. Strong institutions cultivate and nurture environments where healthy relationships form and flourish.

Expectations Matter

Clear and high expectations are central to encouraging and challenging students to stretch themselves to grow and excel both in and beyond the classroom. Effective institutions communicate expectations clearly and consistently, and ensure that programs and practices enact these expectations, so that everyone from prospective and enrolled students to staff and faculty understand and experience what matters most.

Alignment Matters

Institutional effectiveness and success are enhanced when administrative and academic policies, procedures, and processes are aligned in an integrated and seamless fashion. This alignment is improved through educational partnerships within and across traditional organizational boundaries, especially academic and student affairs units. When students find themselves in an aligned institution, their experiences are more connected, coherent, and meaningful.

Improvement Matters

Some institutions not only expect students to learn and improve, but they model an important ethos for students by aspiring for higher levels of accomplishment and by staying true to their purposes. These institutions seek out best practices and adapt research-based ideas to fit their own students, missions, and institutional cultures. They also engage in authentic assessment practices grounded in the everyday experience of students, faculty, and staff and use evidence to inform and improve everything they do.

Leadership Matters

At an effective institution, leadership is collaborative, and people throughout the institution see themselves as part of the leadership team. This entails articulating clear, aspirational goals and sustaining a culture that fosters shared responsibility and leadership at all levels of the institution.

Focus on Institutional Culture

We believe that no matter the circumstances, these six themes stand the test of time and are needed now more than ever as the central focus of undergraduate education. It is our hope you will reflect on these themes in your own context and then take meaningful action to enhance what matters most at your institution.

Focusing on the undergraduate experience is all about creating and sustaining an institutional culture that is mission-driven yet adaptable to change. Successful institutions have leadership at every level – students, faculty and staff, departments and divisions, schools and colleges, upper administration, the governing board – that is committed to putting student learning first. Such institutions also have a culture of positive restlessness (Kuh et al., 2010) – always assuming that they can do better, continually seeking improvement, and resisting the complacency and ossification that results from the “we’ve always done it this way” mindset.

We believe in the fundamental idea that institutional change is possible through strategic planning and then deliberate execution of those plans. Institutional cultures focused on student learning are fostered by a careful alignment of plans for program development and enhancement, new and renovated facilities, faculty development and support, fundraising objectives, and a host of priorities related to campus climate and the student experience. We recognize that both changing environments and sudden crises can make sustained action difficult; acts of violence or hatred, widespread student protests, sharp budget cuts, and other traumatic events can shake an institution to the core. A college or university is best able to weather these storms when leaders at all levels have a shared understanding of mission, a strong network of relationships stretching across and beyond campus, a habit of collaboratively working together to solve problems, and the ability to cultivate high levels of trust, including trust that commitments made today will be honored in the future.

Planning begins with an authentic vision and a clear sense of mission. Institutions must involve multiple constituencies in the development of strategic plans by cultivating the distinct expertise and perspectives of each. Many colleges and universities have established ways of engaging their boards of trustees in setting long-term visions, but savvy institutions also integrate faculty, staff, and students into this work. Leaders of the most effective strategic planning efforts reach beyond the traditional academic constituencies to make alumni, families, employers, foundations, and government agencies partners in the process. In short, our long experience tells us that collaborative planning is an essential tool to developing and sustaining institutional culture focused on learning.

Having a strong strategic plan is one thing, but enacting it is another. We have seen too many strategic plans filed and forgotten. Long-term planning that leads to systemic change must be linked to annual priority setting, budgeting and hiring, and other key institutional functions. And we cannot overemphasize the need for frequent communication about strategic initiatives so that all constituents are informed about progress and reminded about the broad goals and principles undergirding these efforts. Celebrating milestones and accomplishments along the way also nourishes an institution’s spirit and morale. At the same time, publicly acknowledging the persistent challenges on our campuses ensures that we continue to work toward aspirational goals.

The creation of an institutional culture focused on student learning can be stymied by common pitfalls related to a lack of broad involvement and poor communication. Try to avoid these!  Our first and most important recommendation in this regard is to involve a broad range of people in thinking about how the institution might focus more fully on issues of student learning and to welcome ideas from all over campus. Leaving out a key constituency can encourage resentment and feelings of alienation and will usually slow progress. To encourage the most robust dialogue possible, give all participants in the conversation the freedom to speak their piece. It is essential that trustees hear directly from faculty and staff (and vice versa) and that student voices are listened to with care. A climate in which honest exchange is not possible will likely lead to less than optimal outcomes. It is also essential that serious conversation about student learning not be derailed by conversation stoppers such as “We tried that once before and it failed” or “So and so would never agree to that.”  Good ideas should be given the time and support necessary to develop. Over and over again we have seen institutions do hard but important work to enhance student learning, finding the will and the money to do what they most want to do. The central question is, what do you most want to do?

Creating an institutional culture focused on student learning is a long-term game. There are no quick fixes. It is fashionable in the academy to look for best practices that show immediate results on key metrics. Some interventions have been demonstrated empirically to have positive influence on student success, but not all of these may be applicable to every institution in the same way. On the journey toward excellence, there is no single path. Institutional contexts are hugely determinative of what works. You need to consider the intersections between your context and possible practices to find the best approaches for your students and your institution, and you need to be open to changing your practices over time as your students and your situation evolve.

Despite the complexity of this work, every institution can make a conscious choice to reach a higher level of excellence, no matter what its starting point. Yes, institutional resources and degrees of wealth vary and can make all kinds of things possible, or seemingly impossible. Nevertheless, we believe that all institutions can attain their specific missions through effective educational practices that are most appropriate for the students they serve. Marshal your best thinkers, planners, communicators, and advocates for excellence, and improve or redesign the institution so that it will best serve the students you are privileged to have.

It is our firm conviction that institutions that are serious about creating learning-centered cultures have to constantly make strategic choices that reflect their values. These choices are revealed by the content of meetings of faculty, senior leaders, and boards of trustees. They are evident in budget priorities. They emerge in fundraising campaigns. And they are apparent in the ways classes are designed and taught; the daily interactions students have with faculty, staff and peers, and in the ethos of a campus.

We believe that aspects of the institutional culture itself must be the subject of regular, critical study. Routine gatherings of trustees, the faculty, or senior administrators seldom examine broad questions of institutional culture, and this inattention can lead to cultural drift or to the neglect of essential issues, such as sexual violence or race relations on campus. A seemingly stable environment can be shattered almost overnight if a college or university strays carelessly from its mission by not paying attention to how historic inequities or recent developments in the broader society are affecting campus life, by focusing the reward system on the wrong priorities, or by experiencing rapid turnover in leadership. Rather than waiting for a crisis to arise, prudent leaders should notice what is not being talked about and should seek to bring hard truths into the open, perhaps through the appointment of institutional task forces charged with the examination of some dimension of campus life. In our experience, a strong, positive campus culture focused on learning is an enormous asset that should never be taken for granted.


Kuh, G.D., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J.H., Whitt, E.J., & Associates (2010). Student Success in College: Creating Conditions That Matter. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.