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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

5 of 5 Stories

Emphasis on Learning
Alverno College offers an alternative approach

By Kathy Witkowsky

Milwaukee, Wisconsin

WOULDN’T YOU LOVE to work with people who knew how to, well, work with people? If they went to Alverno College in Milwaukee, chances are they do.

That’s because social interaction is one of eight skills that students at this all-women’s Catholic college have to master before they graduate. Students also learn how to communicate well; think critically; identify and solve problems; develop and adhere to values; consider and respect global perspectives; contribute to their community; and appreciate art. All the while, they learn to critically and accurately identify their strengths and their weaknesses.

Alverno incorporates the teaching of these skills into traditional disciplines, including nursing, education and the usual array of liberal arts courses of study. Ideally, students at other liberal arts schools pick up similar skills en route to their degrees. But the Alverno administration believes that students learn better when they are aware of what they are supposed to be learning. So the school has turned the usual approach to education on its head: The disciplines provide a framework for teaching the skills, rather than the other way around.

“You’re not going to college just to stuff your mind with bits of trivia so you can be on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire,” said Sister Joel Read, Alverno’s feisty and passionate president. Read, a founding member of the National Organization for Women, decided education was the way to improve women’s lives. She was at the helm when Alverno unveiled its revolutionary “ability-based” curriculum in 1973, and has helped bring the school international recognition since then.

The philosophy behind Alverno’s curriculum—that students should be able to do something with what they know—is hardly revolutionary. It’s Alverno’s practical and supportive approach that distin-guishes the school and keeps students commuting to its modest, 46-acre campus on Milwaukee’s south side.

Traditionally, education has focused on critical thinking and reasoning, said Marcia Mentkowski, director of Alverno’s Educational Research and Evaluation department. “What we’ve learned through our research is that it’s equally important to focus on performance.

“We all understand [the notion of] intellectual development—years of schooling to develop reasoning,” continued Mentkowski. “Now imagine performance development. That needs as much teaching and learning as does intellectual development.”

So on a chilly Febru a ry night in Milwaukee, Sara Duelge sat at a round conference table and entered into a lively discussion with four of her Alverno classmates. The group had 25 minutes to reach a consensus on a recommendation for an environmental post.

Twenty-two-year-old Duelge favored a politician with environmental leanings, someone she thought “understands the relationship between politics and the environment.” But she couldn’t persuade her peers, and in the end she agreed to lend her support to a woman with a long history of environmental research.

The endorsement was meaningless; this was only an exercise for Alverno’s Social Interaction class. What Duelge and her peers were really doing was displaying their social skills to some 30 observers who sat at surrounding tables taking copious notes. The observers, many of whom were Alverno alumnae, had been given a list of 11 typical behaviors, good and bad—from “leading” to “challenging” to “blocking”— and kept track of how often the students displayed them.

Afterwards, Duelge unclipped her microphone from her overalls and compared her analysis of her behavior with that of six observers who had been assigned to focus specifically on her. While all were Alvern o alumnae, and there fore familiar with the assessment process, none had ever met Duelge prior to that night.

 
  Alverno’s unique “ability-based” curriculum has attracted thousands of students to the college’s Milwaukee campus.
“We thought you did very well,” assessor Jeanine Maly told Duelge. And the longer Duelge stays at Alverno, the better she will get at these group interactions, Maly added. Maly was Duelge’s main assessor, while the other five observers were just learning their roles. Alverno regularly uses more than 200 volunteer assessors to help students understand what will be expected of them once they graduate.

In painstaking detail, the group told Duelge what they had observed. They had recorded three instances in which Duelge demonstrated “leading” behavior—meaning that she had taken charge of the discussion— and encouraged her to do so more often. They agreed that Duelge did well at “information giving” and “reinforcing,” though they wished she had stood up more for her preferred candidate. Then they asked Duelge to choose two behaviors that she would like to improve on. She picked “summarizing” and “information seeking.”

It might sound clinical, but former students say the method is effective. “I take my abilities for granted,” said assessor-in-training Joan Schneider, 41, who graduated from Alverno in 1998 and is now a cost accountant for an insurance company. “It’s my supervisors who will point out, ‘Not everyone can do this.’ And I think a lot of it is because of the abilities I learned at Alverno.”

Schneider, who spent ten years pursuing her degree in business management and computer studies before graduating in 1998, said the school taught her how to provide evidence to back up her point of view. Now, she said, “When I present issues or concerns to management, they can’t ignore it—it’s concrete.”

Even assessors who never attended Alverno say there is something to it . “We’re learning as well,” said Rod Johnson, who has been a volunteer assessor for Alverno for 17 years. A former manager at an electronics company, Johnson said that simply perf o rming the assessments made him aware that he often took the lead and wasn’t listening enough to his co-workers.

 
“You’re not going to college just to stuff your mind with bits of trivia,” says Sister Joel Read, who has been president of Alverno College since 1973. 
Duelge, who wants to be a teacher, acknowledged that it was a little nerveracking to be under such close scrutiny. During the discussion, she was too focused to worry about the fact that she was on the hot seat, but “I shook as soon as I left,” she said. But she also said she thought it was a very valuable exercise. “I will take things away from what I learned tonight more than [I would have gained from] a letter grade or a test,” she said. “You can apply it in your everyday life.”

The Wall Street Journal called Alverno “a kind of post-feminist finishing school.” But actually, its performance based approach feels more like a hybrid of the traditional liberal arts college and a vocational school. The course catalog even offers suggestions for career choices related to different fields of study.

Director of Research Mentkowski said that’s exactly what is needed to prepare students for today’s world. “I’m saying we have to integrate the liberal arts and the professional school,” she said. “The liberal arts have to do what the professional school does; the professional school has to do what the liberal arts school does.”

That is why Alverno students are constantly being asked to demonstrate their skills at assessments like Sara Duelge’s . Presentations and group projects are incorporated into classes, and sometimes video-taped so the student and faculty can review their performances and see their improvement over time. Students don’t take tests or receive grades. Instead, they receive elaborate critiques, or “assessments” from their teachers and their peers, and they also have to “self-assess.” That way they develop a realistic notion of both their strengths and their weaknesses.

“We believe in criticism,” said Austin Doherty, a longtime faculty member and now director of the school’s outreach program. “A lot of people think that’s a negative word, but we don’t.”

During a recent nursing class, sophomore Carol Strem and two of her class-mates were critiquing a tape-recorded interview she had conducted with a mock “client” about his health practices.

“Boy! I learned a lot about myself!” said Strem, 42, after listening to the tape. She noticed that she had tended to with-draw when the interview wasn’t going well, and that her voice dropped in pitch when she was frustrated. “I can use this as a tool now,” said Strem, who immediately began to consider a visualization technique to overcome her weaknesses. “When I get to this point [again], I have to picture myself getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

“Being able to interview effectively is the whole basis on which nurses make good judgments,” said Nursing Professor Zita Allen, explaining why she has her students practice. “We talk about being socialized into the profession of nursing— that by doing it, you get it. By having [the students] experience this in a controlled setting, we can avoid mistakes.”

Allen has been teaching at Alverno for 30 years—since before the curriculum changed. “In some ways it was easy being the expert on the stage,” said Allen. “This takes a lot more thinking.”

It also takes a lot more collaboration. Faculty members must belong to two departments: one representing their academic discipline, the other representing a skill or ability fundamental to that discipline. That way Alverno discourages the interdepartmental rivalries that exist on so many campuses, and ensures the cohesiveness of the curriculum. And like the students, faculty also have to submit to teaching assessments by their own peers. Teaching is considered more important than publishing; and when they are published, much of what Alverno faculty write is related to teaching.

Students said the Alverno approach occasionally gets tiresome. But they also said it works. Over and over again they credited the small class sizes, public presentations and self-assessments with changing the way they relate to their family, their peers and their co-workers. “Business people will say that in a group they can always point out who’s an Al-verno grad,” said Vice President for Aca-demic Affairs Kathleen O’Brien. “They’ll often say, ‘She can solve a problem,’ or ‘She’ll take the initiative.’”

 
  Alverno College nursing students Carol Stern (left), Mary Beth Slavick (center) and Kelly Martin. “I used to think this was a lot of baloney,” Slavick said, but “I’ve actually used some of the techniques.”
Deborah Kozina agreed. As director of communications and special events for Catholic Knights, which sells life insurance and other benefits, she’s had half a dozen Alverno students work for her as interns.

“While all college students these days are more grown up and professionally equipped than in years past, there’s a difference” between the Alverno students and students from other colleges, said Kozina, who has gone on to hire two of the interns for her Milwaukee office and would have hired all of them had there been job positions available. The Alverno women “have a professional poise” that is noticeable, she said, and enables them to jump right in during staff meetings. “There’s a sense of self, and they’re able to think well on their feet,” Kozina said.

“I used to think this was a lot of baloney,” said sophomore nursing student Mary Beth Slavick. But in fact, said Slavick, 36, “I’ve actually used some of the techniques.” She is more apt to listen to her children now, she said, and less inclined to block them out or dominate the conversation.

Senior Jessica Ginster, 31, used the social skills she had learned at Alverno to confront an abusive boss. Once so lacking in self-confidence that she almost failed a class due to repeatedly poor self-assessments, Ginster calmly explained to her boss that his explosive behavior was costing him productivity.

“Before, I would have thought, ‘You’re being a girl. You’re being too emotional,’” said Ginster, who is getting a degree in philosophy and plans to study bioethics in graduate school. “I would have thought he was absolutely unfixable. And I probably would have quit.” Instead, her boss is now in counseling, and she meets with him on a weekly basis to discuss his behavior modification.

There is no end to the dramatic success stories. Still, it takes time for the Alvern o approach to work—and it may not work for everyone. (Seventy-nine percent of first-year students return for a second year, and 57 percent graduate within six years.) Even though there are no grades at the college, students can fail a course if they don’t prove they’ve mastered the abilities that it is designed to teach.

During a Natural Science, Math and Technology course, about 15 students were performing pendulum experiments with metal balls and string. Working in small groups, they were learning how to develop hypotheses and make observations, predictions and inferences. But Professor Ann van Heerden reminded them of what they really were learning. “What I’m hoping you’ll get out of this class is learning what goes into problem solving,” she told them.

Problem solving wasn’t coming easily to freshmen Jessica Kacz, 18, and Angie Branson, 19. They couldn’t grasp why van Heerden had instructed them to clock ten swings of the pendulum, then divide by ten, rather than trying to clock just one swing, which was too fast to time accurately. And they also had difficulty graphing their results, until van Heerden coaxed them along.

Neither Kacz nor Branson had done particularly well in high school, and they were just beginning to adjust to the concept of learning for learning’s sake.

“In high school I would just get a D, and I wouldn’t worry about it anymore,” said Branson. But at Alverno, there aren’t any grades. She can’t move on until she actually masters the skill. “In high school, I went because I had to. Here I’m going ’cause I want to learn,” she said.

Added Kacz: “In high school, they just graded my paper and that was it.” But at Alverno, she said, her teachers point out her strengths and her weaknesses—so she knows what she needs to work on. “I think they’re concerned with our welfare,” she said. “It makes you try a little harder.”

After class, Professor van Heerden said she knew Kacz and Branson were struggling. But she also believed that Alverno could help them. “I’ve seen students like this before, and I’ve seen where they can go,” said van Heerden, who has been at Alverno seven years. “Seeing the way that the students grow in confidence and ability — that’s what sold me on the curriculum.”

While most colleges measure the success of their alumni by income, Alverno actually wrote a book analyzing its graduates’ post-college lives. The result, Learning That Lasts: Integrating Learning, Development, and Performance in College and Beyond, offers an in-depth look at the school’s alumnae, based on a study that charted the progress of 358 Alverno graduates.

The results proved what Alverno administrators had believed all along. Five years after graduation, 95 percent of the alumnae were employed; 60 percent were working in professional positions in their area of study; another 26 percent held higher level positions. And 88 percent of those working were in jobs that required a college degree—a significant figure since most of them worked in jobs that didn’t require a degree before entering Alverno. So it wasn’t surprising that 79 percent improved their economic status compared to their mothers, and 66 percent compared to their fathers.

Twenty-five percent had enrolled in graduate school; another 26 percent had pursued further education in other ways.

The numbers looked good. But Alverno administrators wanted to look deeper, to evaluate how their former students solved problems, interacted with others, communicated and expressed their values. “If we compare our graduates to graduates from other institutions, that would not be a high enough standard for us,” said principle author Marcia Mentkowski. “In general, the public is not satisfied with graduates of other institutions. So we have to set higher standards—that is, ‘What are outstanding contributors to society like?’”

 
Austin Doherty is director of the Alverno Institute, which offers workshops in the college’s approach to teaching and learning. 
The Alverno alumnae did well by those standards, too. The authors concluded that the Alverno graduates “were deeply collaborative, sensitive to differences, caring and balanced in how they approached the perspectives of others. They often used a wide range of intellectual and interpersonal abilities to find and solve complex problems. By combining their interpersonal abilities and intellectual abilities in distinct ways, they kept learning through their ongoing performance, and they found ways to make meaningful contributions to the lives of others.”

Alverno’s success with its students is perhaps more impressive given their diversity. Thirty-seven percent of the students are minorities; more than 67 percent are first-generation college students; and 89 percent receive financial assistance to help pay the annual $11,400 tuition (which is slightly more for nursing students, slightly less for the school’s weekend program). Though some students enroll directly out of high school, the vast majority are over 23 years old; many are married with families and other responsibilities. And while the school is Catholic, its students represent a variety of religious backgrounds.

An additional challenge is the students’ varied, in some cases poor, academic background. Alverno will accept C, even, in some cases, D students, if they appear able to handle college work. Administrators see that as part of their mission. “We’re educating people who are what the world’s like today—and who will be in that world,” said O’Brien, vice president for academic affairs.

Alverno also is educating educators. Outside interest in the curriculum led to the creation of the Alverno College Institute, which offers day-long and week-long workshops that explain the school’s approach to teaching. Every year, dozens of schools from all over the nation and numerous foreign countries send representatives to the Institute. But Institute director Austin Doherty said she does not believe that all schools should necessarily adopt the same approach. “We spread the word,” Doherty explained. How other schools decide to reach their goals is up to them, she said.

In March 2000 the Pew Charitable Trusts gave $1.1 million to Alverno so the Institute can work with 26 other colleges that want to make student learning the organizing principle of their campus. The 18-month project will culminate in a book.

Ironically, while Alverno’s academic reputation continues to grow among its peer institutions, the school is not particularly well-known among potential students or their high school counselors. Most of the students come from the greater Milwaukee a rea; only 4 percent are from out-of-state or overseas.

The college actually has lost student population in the past few years, from a high of more than 2,400 to its current enrollment of about 1,930. It is trying to reverse that trend by appealing to younger students, with athletic programs and other on-campus activities. Like other are a schools, Alverno also has an aggressive marketing campaign.

 
  Alverno students ponder a question posed in Professor Ann van Heerden’s Natural Science, Math and Technology class.
Undoubtedly, though, Alverno’s best promoters are its students, who universally love the place. The only downside to attending the school, according to Stephanie Duelge (no relation to Sara Duelge), is that “not everyone has gone to Alverno!”

After seeing the changes in Duelge, her boyfriend also would like to attend Alverno. But that is not likely to happen anytime soon. Aside from a small co-educational graduate program, Alverno administrators say they plan to keep the college single-sex until and unless the world treats women fairly.

Students said they liked the single-sex aspect, which they said adds to Alverno’s safe, caring atmosphere. “They make you feel like there ’s nothing you can’t do,” said senior Nina Hughes, 21.

Still, according to Alverno President Read, “Alverno graduates are not sought after because they’re kind, nurturing, compassionate people. They’re sought after because they can perform.”

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