Academically on Course


The national conversation on higher education recently focused on just how little students are learning in college, especially in the first two years. Much of the conversation was sparked by a new book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning On College Campuses. The book made waves with its finding that 45% of students made no significant improvement in learning after two years of college. For students who did show gains, the level of improvement was modest at best.

Bard College at Simon’s Rock doesn’t merely buck the trend, the College’s approach to higher education serves as a model for what the first two years of college should look like. Independent assessments, including the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE), the Wabash Study, and the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), show students graduating with a two-year associate of arts degree are not just modestly improved by their education, they’re transformed by it.

Academic Dean Anne O'Dwyer is currently conducting a survey to gather more information about how prepared students feel after they have transferred. Alumni who wish to take the survey should email Dean O’Dwyer to participate.

The Simon’s Rock Lower College program provides a formal framework for the first two years of study. It’s a deliberately and coherently structured program, and is continually reexamined to assess how well students are being served.

Lower College Students Measure Up

After successfully completing the Lower College requirements, students graduate with an associate of arts degree. Approximately half of AA graduates transfer to complete their bachelor’s degree at leading schools across the nation. They often report pursuing opportunities they wouldn’t have considered without the skills acquired during their two years at Simon’s Rock.

In follow-up studies conducted by the College, transfer students often report attaining higher GPAs than they did at Simon’s Rock, a phenomenon they attribute to the College’s rigorous (and honest) academics. Students report being well prepared for the new challenges they encounter after Simon’s Rock.

For the 50% of students who stay to complete a bachelor of arts degree, the Upper College provides a range of opportunities geared toward preparing students for the next phase of their life. Juniors cultivate their skills in on-campus and study-abroad programs before working on self-designed thesis projects their senior year. Planned in close collaboration with a committee of faculty advisors, the Senior Thesis is a capstone experience for students. It’s also powerful documentation of the exceptional learning outcomes the College consistently delivers.

Faculty members and Provost Marcy read and assess senior theses, finding demonstrations of rigorous, advanced work more often seen in graduate level work. No surprise, considering that Simon’s Rock ranks 13th in the nation for the percentage of its students who go on to receive a PhD.

Surveys Say

In Academically Adrift, 50% of students reported they didn't have a single course that required writing 20 pages in their previous semester. At Simon’s Rock, First-Year Seminar alone requires students to commit to writing at least 20 pages per semester. By their senior year, students are taking advanced classes and working on a senior thesis. Both require in-depth research and writing that draws on their knowledge in a particular area.

The National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) tracks how students spend their time in college. NSSE surveys students to measure how involved they are in their education. The survey results shed light on how well Simon’s Rock serves its students. While Academically Adrift reports that 35% of students spend five hours or less per week studying, NSSE data shows more than 80% of Simon’s Rock students spend 11 hours or more preparing for class each week.

The authors of Academically Adrift theorize one reason students aren’t learning in college: Faculty performance evaluations are linked to student’s course evaluations. The idea here is that students will offer better evaluations to professors who give good grades and minimal work. When looking at Simon’s Rock, a very different picture emerges. Simon’s Rock cultivates the sense that truly meaningful, life-changing learning is the result of a deep commitment within a community that is rich in support and resources for learning.

The Simon’s Rock faculty is chief among those resources, and they devote a truly exceptional amount of time to each student. NSSE data shows Simon’s Rock scoring at the very top of students reporting that they have excellent relationships with professors. And while Simon’s Rock students consistently speak of the College’s demanding workload—evidenced by the amount of time they spend studying—the College is number two on yet another NSSE measure: students who indicate they would “definitely” choose to attend the school again.