On Academics

Research that Makes a Difference

Announcing the new Christian Higher Education Research Council

I like cycling. Actually, that’s an understatement. I love cycling. When I lived in Arkansas, I rode about 6,500 miles a year. Now that I live in a less temperate climate (and am a few years older), I ride less, but I still log over 4,000 miles a year.

The Christian Higher Education Research Council
(Photo: Courtesy of Rick Ostrander)

One piece of equipment that I cannot do without on my road bike is my computer. It tells me my time, distance, maximum speed and, most importantly, my average miles per hour. It gives me the unbiased – and sometimes unwelcome – truth about how well I’m riding. Some days I may feel like I’m riding hard, but the numbers on the computer don’t lie.

Moreover, to gain the most benefit from the data, I need compare my data to that of other riders. I may feel like I’m doing well to average 20 miles an hour, but if half of the riders in my club are averaging higher, then maybe I can do better. And maybe I can learn some lessons from the others.

Finally, by enabling me to set measurable goals, my computer actually motivates me to try harder. I’m not the only biker who has taken an extra lap around the block just to watch my computer turn from 49.5 miles to 50.

If you just want to get some fresh air and exercise, you don’t need a computer. But as any athlete will attest, if you really want to get better, you need good data.

The same principle applies in education. When I was a young professor, my gauge for how well I was doing was whether students generally seemed to like me or not. Did they laugh at my sarcasm? Did some stay after class to ask questions? While being liked is satisfying, eventually I learned to ask the more important questions: Did the students achieve the educational goals of my class? Was there evidence that real learning was occurring?

Universities that are serious about academic quality ask themselves the same hard questions about student learning that I do about my biking. That’s why they use instruments such as the Major Field Achievement Test and the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measure students’ increases in content knowledge and critical thinking skills.

Moreover, just as my cycling data is more useful when I compare it to that of others, the same is true in academics. We need a frame of reference outside ourselves in order to really learn from the data. The math professor may think she’s a rigorous grader, but how does her 2.8 GPA compare to the other four sections of calculus? Students at one institution may score a four out of five on the survey question, “There is a strong commitment to academic excellence on this campus,” but how does one interpret that number without comparison to similar schools? 

In other words, as academic institutions we need good data in order to improve, and we also need reference points outside our institution to adequately interpret that data.

That’s why one of the new initiatives I’m most excited about at the CCCU is the Christian Higher Education Research Council. In September, six administrators and two higher education scholars gathered in Washington, D.C. for a two-day research roundtable to inaugurate the new project. Laurie Schreiner, chair of the higher education department at Azusa Pacific University, heads the council, which also includes representatives from Bethel University, Crown College, Fresno Pacific University, John Brown University, Messiah College and Taylor University.

The basic purpose of the Research Council is to guide the CCCU in conducting, interpreting and disseminating research that fosters institutional improvement and supports an accurate and compelling narrative regarding Christian higher education in the U.S.

One of the council’s main functions will be to help our schools coordinate a regular cycle of nationally normed evaluations that are standard in higher education, such as the Student Satisfaction Index, the National Survey of Student Engagement and the HERI faculty survey, so that they can compare results as a group. In this way, the Research Council continues the work of the Collaborative Assessment Project (CAP), which has been ongoing since 2000.

But the council will also strengthen and expand that assessment work. It will use predictive analytics to help schools apply data in constructive ways. For example, it will help us answer important questions like this one: Based on data gathered across the CCCU, what are the two most effective things schools can do to improve retention rates among first-generation students? 

In addition, the council will connect doctoral students and other higher education researchers to the important questions and challenges that our schools are facing, and it will evaluate research requests for quality and relevance. So if you receive a research request that has been endorsed by the Research Council, you will know that it is a well-designed project that addresses important questions for your institution and others.

Finally, the Research Council will serve an important external purpose as well. Misperceptions of Christian higher education abound, and they need to be corrected with solid data about the outstanding work that our schools are doing. As Biola president Barry Corey remarked concerning the political challenges that confronted our California members last summer, “Factual arguments make a difference.”

The council will collect and disseminate data that tells the story of the quality work our institutions are doing and the positive impact of our graduates on society. An important part of the council’s research agenda, therefore, will be to assess CCCU graduates’ activities several years down the road. We’re confident that the lifework of our graduates will compare quite favorably to that of graduates of non-CCCU schools.

The council will roll out its research agenda at the Presidents Conference in January, followed by a presentation and discussion of the initiative with CCCU academic leaders at the peer-group conferences in San Diego.

As Christian colleges and universities meet the challenges of a changing cultural and political landscape, it is crucial that they are guided by sound research. The CCCU Research Council will empower us to do just that.

Rick Ostrander is vice president for academic affairs and professional programs at the CCCU.

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