The Voice: Summer 2001

The Voice

Seniors show deepened understanding of social issues

Sally Jongsma

Two hundred ninety six students graduated from Dordt College this spring     Each spring Dordt seniors rewrite an essay they were asked to write as incoming freshmen. The Social Challenges Essay asks students to identify one challenge they believe to be particularly significant in today's world. Although the essays of this year's seniors have not yet been rated, assessment reports from last year indicate that between their freshman and senior years students develop a deeper understanding of the complexity of issues facing the world in which they will soon have a new role.
    Some striking similarities and differences were obvious in the essays of an anonymous sampling of essay packets that included both of the essays written by fourteen students. With one exception, each freshman essay focused on the decline of personal moral values, citing such concerns as abortion, disrespect, family breakdown, and homosexuality. Most offered a fairly simple description of what they perceived to be the problem and a fairly simple solution-witnessing to the world, praying, and being good examples by living Godly lives.
    The senior essays acknowledged the complexity of factors that contribute to society's problems-factors that lead to the situations freshmen considered declining moral values. Seniors cited the role of television; the pervasive sense of individualism and self-interest; the forces of greed, materialism, and affluence; the use and place of technology; the distribution of resources and the prevalence of poverty; the depletion of natural resources; our entertainment-driven culture; the sense of apathy in our culture; and the secularization of our society.
    Dordt's Student Assessment Committee, with the help of faculty who are given guidelines on how to rate the essays, assesses such things as how well students express their ideas, how well they support their positions, how aware they are of the historical roots of an issue, how logical and well-supported their solutions are, and how well a Christian perspective is expressed. Freshmen and senior essays are then compared to see how much students develop in their thinking about and their ability to respond to contemporary issues.
    The 2000 report issued by Dordt's assessment committee says, “Students completing four years of education at Dordt show genuine, demonstrable improvement in their faith and world view development.” Students score significantly higher on all rating dimensions as they move from freshman to senior status. The greatest change is seen in moral reasoning and judgment, articulation of world views, expression of biblical themes, and awareness of historical and structural dimensions of social problems.    
    The assessment report also says that it appears that a significant portion (at least seventy five percent) of Dordt students place a strong emphasis on the importance of developing their world view. They also value the perspective of Dordt College and feel that faculty spend an appropriate amount of time discussing “perspectival” issues.
    At the same time, the report points out that while gains in the expression of biblical themes have been noted, those biblical themes are often quite broad and simplistic. More improvement is needed, they believe. And they would like to see students make even bigger gains in presenting well-structured and comprehensive arguments. With assessment tools such as the Social Challenges Essay the committee can help faculty and the institution set goals for further improvment in these areas.
    The strongest area of growth as assessed through the Social Challenges Essay was in the area of personal responsibility. Survey data obtained from other assessment tests shows that Dordt students are more likely than comparison groups to strongly desire to help others in difficulty and to participate in community action. And even though earlier assessment reports indicated that Dordt students were less politically aware on broad social-political issues than comparison groups, recent results show that seniors have posted rather large gains in their desire to influence political structures.
    “Our attempts to globalize the curriculum and to interest students in social-political issues appears to have generated a modest increase in interest and awareness of the larger forces that shape culture and society,” the report concludes.
    This seems to be borne out in further results. Seniors seem to be more likely than freshmen to want to promote racial understanding. Students involved in service or cross-cultural programs scored significantly higher on the Social Challenges Essay, as did those who took a course that explicitly dealt with diversity or multi-cultural issues.
    Overall, a large majority of Dordt seniors feel that their Dordt educational experience had an impact on their desire to be of service to others, adds the report. Not only are students changing in these areas, but they believe that Dordt College has contributed to this change.
    These are encouraging signs for administrators and assessment committee members, who are confident that assessment results are helping the institution focus on areas that need improvement and are providing the basis for continuing to revise and improve the education Dordt offers. And it gives them concrete feedback to pass on to faculty to incorporate into their teaching.

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