Advancing and Assessing Social Entrepreneurship at Middlebury College
Association of American Colleges & Universities, April 2014
Middlebury College has a long-standing commitment to encouraging students to apply their learning beyond the classroom and develop a sense of social responsibility. Since 2007, the college has made a particular effort to provide more opportunities for students to pursue social entrepreneurship—to identify real-world problems and, with guidance from faculty, mentors, and community partners, develop their own ventures to address these problems. As a result, the 2012-13 academic year saw more than 1,400 Middlebury students participating in some form of community-based learning—over half the undergraduate student population.
Just as notable as these high participation rates, though, are the assessments the college is developing to ensure students are achieving the important—and famously hard to measure—learning outcomes related to social entrepreneurship and community engagement. “It’s not assessment for assessment’s sake,” says Susan Baldridge, vice president for planning and assessment at Middlebury. Faculty and staff are constantly feeding the data back into the program to improve student learning. Their driving concern is, “How is it we can do better what we care deeply about?”
Liberating Students from Constraining Frameworks
Middlebury faculty have long incorporated community-based learning across the curriculum, but when Ron Liebowitz became president of the college he pushed faculty and staff to redouble their efforts and to provide more opportunities for students to engage in community-based work outside of the curriculum. One initiative was the Project on Creativity and Innovation in the Liberal Arts, which serves as a central hub to support “structured, systematic initiatives at the college level that encourage the development of creative, innovative skills.”
PCI supported the creation of the Center for Social Entrepreneurship (CSE), which sponsors workshops, speaker series, mentoring opportunities, and competitive grants and fellowships to help students develop their own projects and initiatives to promote social change. Students can also get a foundation in social entrepreneurship through a series of courses taught by Jon Isham, an economics professor and the faculty director for the CSE. Isham teaches a January term course focused on entrepreneurship in the liberal arts and , a first-year seminar on social entrepreneurship and social justice. Starting next year, another economics professor will teach a new course on the history of entrepreneurship.
MiddCORE also emerged out of the PCI initiatives. MiddCORE is a month-long immersion course—during a January term or a summer session—in which students from various institutions work individually and in teams to complete a series of challenges that test their ability to identify social problems and develop potential solutions. The program now offers one-day workshops as well. Representatives from partnering community organizations are heavily involved, posing real-world challenges and serving as mentors to the students.
There’s an organic flow of students between the various programs sponsored by PCI, CSE, and MiddCORE. Students participating in one program are often inspired to join another, or to create their own social projects with the mentorship of faculty and community partners. The Old Stone Mill, a newly renovated building just off campus, provides work space for students launching ventures or pursuing creative projects, often with mentorship from faculty or community partners. These programs grew out of “a sense that our students were handcuffed by the curriculum and were unable to try stuff out, bear risk, and be creative,” Isham says. “Credits still matter, but a lot of this is about liberating students to try things they never would have otherwise.”
|Because social entrepreneurship entails working multiple stakeholders in unconstrained circumstances, the learning outcomes must also be unconstrained, and a variety of assessment measures are needed to capture student learning.|
Assessing Learning Outcomes
Because students’ participation often occurs outside of their more traditional curricular involvement, “it can be hard to disentangle what they get from those kinds of experiences—through their civic engagement—from the effects of their classes, their major, who they were when they walked in the door,” says Susan Baldridge, vice president for planning and assessment at Middlebury. It’s an issue faculty and staff face when conducting any kind of assessment, she says, but it’s not impossible to overcome. First and foremost, faculty and staff in any program need to clearly articulate their learning goals—“because our assessments are only as good as our understanding of the purpose of the program,” she says. “That process of defining the goals often turns out to be the most meaningful work of assessment.”
MiddCORE faculty and staff discovered this as they refined a new survey to assess students’ progress on the program’s CORE Strength learning outcomes. Working with Adela Langrock, a senior assessment specialist at Middlebury, they developed a survey that asks students to rate their confidence in certain skills and abilities, both before and after they’ve completed the MiddCORE program. “When we began developing the survey, we had very global statements—communication, leadership, these high-order skills,” Langrock says. “But what does, say, leadership mean? Different people will have different interpretations. We need to be more concrete as to what it is you are actually interested in measuring. That’s when we started breaking them down into different skills and components—speaking, listening, reconciling disagreement, all these different pieces.”
The refined survey administered at the end of January term 2013 asked students to rate their confidence on thirty-six different competencies. It’s still an indirect measure of learning, Langrock stresses, but it provides better baseline data to help faculty think about where students are growing as a result of the program. As they continue to administer the survey and amass a larger pool of data, long-term trends may emerge that could shed light on how MiddCORE serves students at different stages in their college career or from different majors (the program is open to all majors and can be completed at any stage from freshman year to up to four years after graduation).
Catherine Collins, associate director of MiddCORE, also stresses that because students are working on unconstrained problems, the learning outcomes will also be unconstrained. “There are so many different pieces with this work in social innovation,” she says. “If students are working with a community organization on a challenge, there are several different stakeholders and several different outcomes. The project can take on many forms and it’s ambiguous at times; they may converge on an idea and then realize it’s inaccurate and they need a new approach. As a result, we may intend for a student to learn how to communicate and negotiate, and surely they do, but there are also other variables and outcomes that actually emerge.” She continued, “because of that complexity, we have to constantly curate new assessment methods. We collect personal narratives, hold focus groups, and we have to circle back five years out—because some of what our students learn they’ll realize after they leave the classroom.”
Liz Robinson, director of PCI, also found this to be the case while conducting focus groups with alumni to discuss how their work after college has been informed by their participation in these programs. Alumni mentioned specific skills they developed—public speaking, organization, leadership, the ability to connect and network—but the big thing they emphasized “across all our programs—CSE, MiddCORE, PCI—is that mentorship is key.” Alumni also reported that after working on community-based projects, their ability to process and take action on what they learned in the classroom improved, “and that continued after they graduated—they became better learners.”
Isham is involved in a project to assess the effectiveness of independent student ventures both qualitatively and quantitatively. Middlebury is a participating college in the Davis Projects for Peace, which offers grants to college students from around the country to work over the summer on projects addressing the root causes of conflict around the world. “We converted self-evaluations by a hundred students from the 2008 cohort, with sixty variables we’re analyzing statistically. We’re also qualitatively assessing projects to see what works well. We determined it really helps if students know very well the area where they will work, and that it helps sustainability-wise to have a partner organization.” Middlebury offers a number of competitive grants for students who wish to pursue independent social ventures over the summer, and Isham says the lessons from the David Projects assessment can help inform the way faculty and staff design those other experiences.
Using Assessment to Improve Learning
Middlebury frames assessment as “instructive about the curriculum, not a judgment of people,” Baldridge says. “We see it as an internal process. I think that’s a more constructive way to do it.” Assessment experts like Langrock help faculty and staff running various programs identify patterns that can help them understand what students are learning.
“After every iteration, we’re looking at the data,” Collins says. “We’re constantly seeking how to design [MiddCORE] differently.” After seeing steady improvement in students’ self-assessments, MiddCORE staff are working with Langrock to develop modified versions of AAC&U’s VALUE rubrics to conduct direct assessment of student learning artifacts and compare those results with students’ self-assessments. Collins also asks the students themselves about how to improve the program. “At the end of the four-week course, we give students the curriculum and say, ‘you’re an expert in your own experience—redesign your MiddCORE experience for how you think we should do it next time.’”
That student involvement is the one of most important aspects of assessment, Robinson says. When she brings alumni to campus for focus groups, she makes a point of having them talk with students about new directions in their current field and how their work has been influenced by their experiences at Middlebury. “That’s the most valuable thing—that the students hear that,” she says. “The best thing we can do with our assessment is showcase it to our students so they understand … that these experiences they are having in college are important.”