Student Competencies and Experiential Learning: An Account from Justin Morrill College (1965-1979)

Three of six student competencies developed by faculty in the Justin Morrill College in 1974

This is the fourth post in a guest series by John Duley. In this post, Duley discusses his time as a faculty member in MSU’s Justin Morrill College (a predecessor of RCAH and Arts & Letters) and the student competencies its faculty sought to develop through experiential learning opportunities.

In this and the next blog I will be relating my previous experience to my suggestions. I joined the Justin Morrill College (JMC) faculty in 1968 as an assistant professor responsible for the college’s Off-Campus Cross-cultural Field Experience Program.

Justin Morrill College provided a superb education and was an exciting and innovative place for students and faculty. But, because we had to rely on MSU recruiters for students, and because we as a faculty were insensitive to the need to recruit students and unwilling to do so, the enrollment did not grow. The university recruiters, charged with interpreting 13 other, more traditional colleges as well, were hard pressed to find a short, easy, yet comprehensive, way to present the College and ended up describing it as a “language” college in which students took two years of language in one year and then studied abroad for a term. The richness of the program: the availability of the student to design his or her own major or have access to any major in the university, the close personal relationships with senior faculty instead of being taught in large lecture sections by graduate student teaching assistants, the opportunities to take courses designed by JMC faculty in fields of their interests and enthusiasm; issue-oriented courses with opportunities for research and service in the community, defied encapsulation.

The other problem was that high school counselors across the state, without a serious look at the College, decided it was the loci of the hippie population and the seat of protests in the university and channeled students from their schools accordingly. The positive element of all this was that our students recruited their siblings and friends. But this was not enough. Over the years 1965 to 1975 the enrollment decreased. In the fall of 1973, President Wharton announced that the University had received a quarter of a million dollar Venture Grant from the Rockefellow Foundation. This grant was to be used to support research and experimental programs in Life Long Learning.

At the fall faculty planning retreat we discussed the wisdom, given the threatened nature of our existence as a College, of applying for part of that grant to develop a Competency-Based Degree Program for non-traditional students. The faculty agreed, and we developed and submitted the proposal. It was accepted by the University, and we received the largest single grant from these funds. Gordon Rohman, the JMC dean, was on leave and Jim Goately was the acting dean. Because of my experience with the Council for the Advancement of Experiential Learning (CAEL) and my work in the assessment of experiential learning, Jim Goatley asked me to head up the project.

The Advisory Committee for the project included members of the Office of Learning and Evaluation Services: Al Abedor and Larry Alexander, the director of the Office.  It also included Paul Dressel of the Office of Institutional Research from whose book, College and University Curriculum, the list of competencies was adapted. The Justin Morrill College faculty on the Advisory Committee included dean Gordon Rohman, English; acting dean Jim Goatley, Natural Science; Paul Hurrell, Philosophy; Harold Johnson, Political Science; Mary Jim Josephs, French; Tom Nowak, Sociology; Milton Powell, History; John Schroeder, English; and Barbara Ward, Fine Arts. Tom Corcoran of the Education Policy Research Center of Syracuse University served as a consultant to the committee.

In June of 1974 I recruited two teams of faculty, one to work during the first summer term: professors Milton Powell, Harold Johnson, Barbara Ward; Jim Goatley; and Tom Nowak and the other team: Mary Jim Josephs, John Schroeder, and Harold Johnson to work during the second summer term. Each team was responsible for the development of three of the six competencies identified by the JMC faculty as characteristic of a liberal arts education. The six competencies and the chair of the work team for each were:

The Student:

  1. Knows how to acquire knowledge and how to use it. Chair: Milton Powell
  2. Has a high level of the mastery of the skills of communication. Chair: John Schroeder
  3. Is aware of his/her values and value commitments and understands and accepts those of other individuals and cultures. Chair: Barbara Ward
  4. Can cooperate and collaborate with others in studying, analyzing and formulating solutions to problems and in taking action on them. Chair: Harold Johnson
  5. Has an awareness of, concern for and sense of responsibility about contemporary/events, issues and problems. Chair: Tom Nowak
  6. Is able to perceive and to describe a coherent, cumulative and integrative pattern within their educational experience. Chair:  Mary Jim Josephs

There were three basis processes which were a part of each student’s educational experience in the program. They were the principal means by which the student demonstrated competencies in the six above areas.

The Processes:

  1. A major project in an area of specialization. Each student designed, composed, carried to completion and defended before an assessment panel a major project (e.g. thesis, experiment) which demonstrated a high level of mastery of the student’s field of concentration.
  2. An autobiography: As a means of reflecting on and integrating the students’ life experiences and projecting alterative futures for themselves.
  3. A community involvement project. Each student analyzed a contemporary event or issue, planned an active involvement, acted in relation to the event, and evaluated his or her involvement.

If I were younger, I would love to head up a committee with MSU and Edgewood Village personnel to develop a competency-based Scholarship of Engagement program for high-school-aged students using the list of skill sets identified by Thomas L. Friedman in his book, Thank You For Being Late. These skills are critical for success in the age of artificial intelligence.

Mr. Friedman’s list of competencies includes: “Strong fundamentals in reading and writing, coding and math, creative thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration, grit, self-motivation, and life-long learning habits and entrepreneurship and improvisation—at every level.” Mr. Friedman’s work is well supported by a couple of highly respected professors of human psychology, Roberta Michnick Golinkoff and Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, who published the book Becoming Brilliant in 2016 beginning with early childhood development. They have developed a table of these skills documenting their developmental processes through experiential learning.