Function, Form and Student Learning

In 2005, the Regents for the University of Minnesota shuttered UM’s School of General Studies and moved its faculty and students to the University’s College of Education and Human Development. The School of General Studies, created in 1932, was something of an anomaly: a two-year developmental unit at a four-year flagship university. GS provided a group of smart and promising students who did not meet regular admissions criteria with an alternative path to UM’s baccalaureate. In contrast to the students admitted directly to the University, GS students were more likely to be first-generation college students and to come from an underrepresented minority group. Like earlier threatened closures this attempt was hotly contested – there were demonstrations, petitions, speeches, and even a few arrests. Unlike earlier threats, this reorganization had the concerted support of the president and the Regents.

Before disappearing into the institution’s archives and collective memory, the School of General Studies collectively wrote The General College Vision: Integrating Intellectual Growth, Multicultural Perspectives, and Student Development. A collection of short chapters, each highlighting a particular aspect or issue within the School of General Studies, the volume makes a compelling argument for the value of developmental education for a multicultural student body. For decades the GS experimented with small classes, innovative pedagogies, and different types of student support. While the GS’s graduation rates were not as strong as those admitted directly to UM, its successes were notable. The book highlights the benefits of bringing together a critical mass of student-focused educators and empowering them. Good things happened to students who were enrolled in the School of General Studies.

Missing from the memorial to this now defunct organizational unit was awareness or recognition why University of Minnesota regents and administrators might not want a separate organizational unit serving students who need more support. The book does not take up the question of the overall effectiveness of the School, examine other structures that might facilitate similar outcomes, or investigate challenges that the structure might have caused. The book’s lack of attention to alternative critiques is understandable, as its goal is to celebrate a school and document successes. However, the absence of different perspectives about the organizational structure that advanced the learning and support underscores one of the recurring problems in the scholarship of higher education: the conflation of functions with forms.

Functions are processes; they are behaviors that lead to outcomes. Forms are the structures that allow functions to take place. Functions cannot occur without some form, some context. Most functions, though, can take place in a variety of forms. To make this more concrete, let us consider a common function in higher education: students learning how to write a lab report. The function can happen through a variety of forms: through classroom instruction, in a laboratory, in a library, in a recitation section, or online.

Assessing the success or failure of a function is challenging. It is one of the primary goals of learning outcomes assessment. To use our example, the effectiveness of a function can be posed as a question: do all students in the science class know how to write a lab report? We are getting better at asking and answering that sort of question. However, assessing the impact of different forms on a function is even more challenging task. That query would take up the issue of the relative effect of  classroom, laboratory, library, recitation section, or online format on students’ ability to write lab reports. The greater the distance between a function and a form, the harder it is to gauge causality.

When causality is difficult to prove, we often rely on correlation. It is well-established practice in making institutional judgments in higher education. In fact, we tend to assess institutional priorities and effectiveness by the particular organizational form that supports the function. Does a college have a Writing Center? If so, it must care about writing, and if it cares about student writing, then there is a good chance that its students are good writers. Does the institution want students to study overseas and have global awareness? Then it must have an Office of Study Abroad and international learning must be something that the institution’s graduates possess. And back to our example, if a college has a science tutorial center, we often presume a commitment to the function of students learning science. Organizational charts are often the score sheets by which institutions stake claims about functions. Organizational descriptions can narrate institutional values.

When an institution of higher education decides to enhance a function, the default strategy is to work through forms. In other words, institutions create offices, centers, departments, or programs; they reorganize and rename. Changing forms signals leadership, priorities and commitment. It is a visible way to effect change in organizational behavior. It also may be the only way to strengthen the function. Further, any evaluation of the new unit often indicates a gain in the function. But what role does the organizational form take in effecting this change? The very institutional commitment usually makes a certain degree of success certain.

The University of Minnesota’s School of General Studies directly supported a very important institutional function, developmental student learning, through a particular organizational structure. But it was not the school’s only function: it was also important in increasing access to the University and overall student diversity. Was the organizational unit, the School of General Studies, the best form to advance these functions? It is an important question that General College Vision does not answer. Since the closing of GS, diversity at the University has suffered and overall institutional graduation rates have continued a trend of steady improvement. But was this a consequence of the change of organizational structure?

It has been my experience leading efforts to create or reorganize academic support units – tutorial centers, math centers, writing centers, advising offices – that if personnel are to remain constant, the key issue is not the form, the organizational shape – it is establishing a shared vision about the function. Finding the time and means to engage with faculty and staff about functions is demanding. It demands time, evidence, trust, and a shared willingness to look at functions and forms from a variety of viewpoints. Nonetheless, making the effort can have a significant positive return. When faculty, professional staff and administration share a deep commitment to a function, success is often assured – regardless of the boxes on the organizational chart.

David Potash

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