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Patrick T. Terenzini, Pennsylvania State University

Editor's Note: Patrick T. Terenzini, co-author of the two-volume series How College Affects Students, will deliver the opening keynote address, October 18, 2007, at the NACADA Annual Conference in Baltimore.


Ernie Pascarella and I have now reviewed nearly 35 years of research on how college affects students (Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, 2005), and it seems entirely reasonable to ask: 'Well, what did you learn, and so what?' Two sets of conclusions come to mind, one about how students learn and the other (more speculative) about how colleges shape that learning.

First, what can we conclude about how students learn? The research from cognitive science, psychology, sociology, anthropology, and higher education tells us a good deal about student learning. Among an impressive array of findings, we know that learning: 1) requires an encounter with a challenge to the learner's current knowledge and belief structures; 2) requires active learner engagement with those challenges; 3) occurs best in a supportive environment that promotes reflection, consolidation, and internalization; 4) is relational and social, occurring best in the company of others and providing both enjoyable interaction and personal support; 5) is maximized in settings where both the learning activity and the learning outcome(s) have meaning for the learner, and 6) is neither time nor location bound.

The striking feature about these characteristics of student learning is that they are common across a wide array of educational outcomes and an equally broad array of different student experiences, both inside and outside the classroom. Experiences having one or more of these characteristics tend to be more educationally effective – regardless of the outcomes under study – than experiences with few or none of these traits. These educationally powerful experiences are found in the nature and integrity of curriculum, in the pedagogies instructors adopt in their classrooms, and in a host of out-of-class experiences.

Equally interesting, these traits are found to varying degrees in studies that focus largely on only one or a small set of possible influences on learning or change. For example, one cluster of studies examines the influence of some aspect of the curriculum and/or a particular instructional approach (e.g., collaborative learning, service learning) on, say, students' critical thinking or problem-solving skills. Those studies, however, frequently overlook a number of students' out-of-class experiences that may also promote the outcome under study. Another cluster of studies examines the influences of students' co-curricular experiences (e.g., in the residence hall, leadership programs, student organizations, or intercollegiate athletics) on some aspect of students' psychosocial development (e.g., identity formation, autonomy, interpersonal skills, or attitude change). Like those focusing on cognitive outcomes, studies of psychosocial development often overlook the possibilities that students' classroom or other academic-related experiences (including the kind of advising they receive) also shape the outcome under study. These patterns suggest quite clearly that most studies of college effects on students have adopted an overly narrow – one might even say myopic – conceptual focus, concentrating on only a comparative handful of factors at a time. Pascarella and I concluded that much of the current body of evidence “present[s] only a partial picture of the forces at work” (2005, p. 630).

This scholarly myopia has its administrative manifestations in our sometimes single-minded search for 'best practices.' When the evidence suggests that some program or intervention effectively promotes an educationally desirable outcome, practitioners adopt that practice for use on their own campuses. The practice seems reasonable enough: If something works on another, similar campus, why would it not also work on one's own? That question has a number of answers, such as different student bodies; different institutional histories, contexts, and cultures; and differences in the commitment and even the capacity of important stakeholders to make the change. What seems reasonable may not always be so.

In its scholarly form, this myopia represents a serious threat to understanding fully what constitutes educational effectiveness. In its administrative forms, this myopia also threatens the full and effective promotion of student learning. In both manifestations, the tendency is to overlook the full richness and range of the things that influence student learning. Perhaps the most important and inescapable conclusion Pascarella and I reached – in all its simplicity and all its complexity – is that student learning is shaped by multiple influences, operating in multiple settings, and affecting multiple outcomes. Student learning is clearly a function of the levels of students' engagement in their college experience, and one measure of educational effectiveness is an institution’s ability to promote high levels of student engagement. But the sixth characteristic of student learning listed above – that it is neither time nor location bound – suggests the need for a broader, more complex vision of how students learn and how we can best enhance it.

Frequently overlooked in the research we do, and in the ways we educate students, is the fact that students' educational experiences do not occur in a vacuum. Their peers (i.e., their friendship groups) and the larger peer environment constitute other important sets of influences that shape student learning. Indeed, Astin (1993) concluded that “the student’s peer group is the single most potent source of influence on growth and development during the undergraduate years” (p. 398).

But the range of influences on learning does not stop there. Students’ individual experiences, their interactions with their friends, and the broader peer environment exist within a still larger setting – the organizational context. Organizational influences are frequently overlooked in the research on college's effects on student development and change. When considered at all, the institutional features studied are usually size, control, mission, or selectivity. Thirty-five years of research indicates that those characteristics are too distal from the student experience to have much, if any, impact on student learning (Astin, 1993; Dey et al., 1997; Pascarella & Terenzini, 1991, 2005).

Re-examining what institutions do, rather than what they are, may offer potentially more productive scholarly and administrative paths. This alternative suggests a need to think more systemically, from top-to-bottom and from wall-to-wall. Educational effectiveness may lie not so much in the kinds or range of programs we offer students, but rather in the extent to which each institutional program, practice, and policy manifests one or more of the characteristics of learning listed earlier. Organizationally, the six characteristics of learning provide a kind of checklist for reviewing current organizational structures, programs, and policies and the extent to which they promote (or militate against) the characteristics of effective learning. What an institution or its units do, specifically, may be less important than that whatever is done be consistent with what we know about how students learn. Kuh and his colleagues (2005) provide clear insight into what some of those internal organizational features are and how a variety of different kinds of institutions have capitalized on them to enhance student learning. Space precludes discussion of those characteristics, but a central theme in those case studies is the ability of the institutions and their faculty and staff members to look and think beyond the boundaries of their own units and activities and to understand the place and role of what they do in relation to the role and activities of others. The product is a coherent, integrated, intentional learning environment that serves the institution's students and its educational mission.

Patrick T. Terenzini
Center for the Study of Higher Education
Pennsylvania State University, University Park


Astin, A. (1993). What matters in college? Four Critical Years revisited. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Dey, E., Hurtado, S., Rhee, B., Inkelas, K. K., Wimsatt, L. A., & Guan, F. (1997) . Improving research on postsecondary outcomes: A review of the strengths and limitations of national data sources. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University, National Center for Postsecondary Improvement.

Kuh, G., Kinzie, J., Schuh, J., Whitt, E., & Associates. (2005). Student success in college: Creating conditions that matter. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E., & Terenzini, P. (1991). How college affects students: Findings and insights from twenty years of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, E., & Terenzini, P. (2005). How college affects students (Vol. 2): A third decade of research. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Cite this article using APA style as: Terenzini, P. (2007, June). From myopia to systemic thinking. Academic Advising Today, 30(2). Retrieved from [insert url here]

Posted in: 2007 June 30:2


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