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College re-evaluates academic goals

According to the 2010 Western Association of Schools and Colleges, the organization that decides whether schools are accredited or not, and the Educational Effectiveness Review, a report written by the Mills administration in response to WASC evaluations, Mills College students are lacking both skills and confidence in written communication, leadership and critical thinking.

While the report from spring 2010 focused on four areas of analysis, it emphasized written communication as one of the more pressing issues currently facing the college.

According to the educational effectiveness documents released by the Mills administration, “The poor result of the written communication assessment is, perhaps, the most disturbing result from our assessments. Given that this requirement is at the very core of what we expect our students to be able to do, the fact that they are not doing it well is a serious issue.”

Marianne Sheldon, the WASC accreditation liaison officer for Mills, said all departments at Mills are responsible for the writing skills of Mills students.

“This is not a challenge solely for the English department,” said Sheldon.

The mean of Mills College students’ scores from a 2010 assessment in written communications fell below the “competent” level, according to the latest EER report. It noted that, of the six different skills assessed, Mills students struggle the most in the area of “support”, suggesting that they have difficulty finding and utilizing evidence to back up their claims when writing.

“This is, unfortunately, consistent with a more general and indirect measure of written communication through surveys, where Mills students’ perception of the degree to which they feel that their writing abilities were enhanced by the College fall below that of our comparison institutions,” the report continued.

According to a 2008 National Survey of Student Engagement, students themselves felt that Mills has not contributed substantially to their writing abilities.

The EER report cited the 2008 NSSE statistics, which showed that only 54% of Mills College seniors felt that Mills “‘greatly enhanced their ability to write effectively.”

Another area of concern is leadership.

According to Sheldon, the NSSE and the EER reports show that Mills students do not see themselves as leaders.

“‘Leadership’ may be the wrong word,” said Sheldon, who was surprised by that finding since she believes Mills students are impressive leaders in society.

Sheldon was also surprised at Mills students’ poorly-rated critical analysis skills.

“Every department focuses on critical analysis,” said Sheldon.

The EER report identifies “the abilities of students to analyze complex realistic scenarios” as “weaker than expected,” and states that some departments need to improve their research methods in order to enhance critical thinking skills.

Information literacy and technology skills at Mills show more promise.

“Our students are doing what is expected of them in this area, and we are now in the enviable position of making changes that will make an already-strong program even stronger” said the EER report.

Sheldon stressed the importance of taking time into account when analyzing these reports.

“A lot of these results are snap shots taken at specific moments in time,” she said. “We can’t demonstrate change instantly.”

A comparison between the 2008 and 2009 NSSE reports shows progress has been made in terms of student leadership.

The next Educational Effectiveness Review will take place between Oct. 6-8 of this year and will include a campus visit.

The Provost’s Office, along with the Educational Policy Subcommittee of the Faculty Executive Committee, will be using the upcoming 2010-2011 academic year to address the issues surrounding written communication skills at Mills to come up with an improved program for enhancing students’ writing skills.