Alverno College may be small, but it has a big influence on teaching methods.
When Mary Staten first walked into Alverno College she immediately felt comfortable. She saw ceramic sculptures in glass cases and dozens of original paintings hanging on walls. Outside, the gardens were lush and manicured and, even though the college was located in a modest, working-class neighbourhood, the tightly-knit buildings were swaddled by woods where students could study water tables and bird habitats.
"It did not have an institutional look," said Staten of the small Milwaukee women's college in Wisconsin from which she graduated.
With just under 2,000 students, Alverno's small campus hides a powerhouse of research. Last year, it received $1.18 million (£790,500) from the Pew Charitable Trust to identify what students can do with their learning. The Pew grant, a collaboration with 25 other higher education institutions, will help locate Alverno's theories on a larger campus.
Since it became an amalgamation of three schools 30 years ago, Alverno has developed a way to track a student's progress that goes to the heart of who the student is and who they are becoming. It is Alverno's reputation in assessing students that has brought countless invites to international teaching conferences, citations by education researchers, million-dollar grants and induced 500 academics from around the world to make the pilgrimage each year to see what they can glean.
Alverno has become familiar with both sides of a student's brain. Faculty understands that acquiring the skills traditionally associated with a discipline, such as the mathematician's need to learn formulas, is not the usual type of learning remembered after a student leaves. The college looks at the development of general abilities, which it divides into eight - communication, analysis, problem-solving, valuing in decision-making, social interaction, global perspectives, effective citizenship and aesthetic responsiveness.
Staff not only assess students on how well they are progressing in these abilities, but students also assess themselves. Prospective employers are occasionally brought in to conduct assessments too. This means individual students are tracked and professors are expected to tailor their teaching to improve those abilities. For example, if problem-solving has not been improved in one course, an assessment report alerts teachers that the student needs to address it in the following semester. Students also have a clear idea of what is expected from them.
Marcia Mentkowski, professor of psychology and Alverno's director of the office of educational research and evaluation, said: "Alverno can find the way to integrate learning from class to class and find out how students are really developing."
If students know what the teacher needs to see improved, the human need to please authority will help them attain these goals, she says. Learning involves self-reflection, such as how personal knowledge and background can help study and solve a problem, such as, say, a local nursing shortage.
Mentkowski has lead-authored a book called Learning that Lasts (Jossey-Bass, 2000), that lays out the theories from Alverno and tries to "renegotiate the college culture".
"Inevitably, when individuals engage in deep self-reflection," writes Mentkowski in Learning that Lasts, "they confront questions about their own values, identity and personal agency".
Self-reflection, however, can lead to indulgence and some of the students' self-assessment writings sound like a cross between a psychotherapy patient's journal and the catch-phrase shorthand of a motivational speaker. For example, one student wrote: "If it were not for Alverno I probably would have stayed in my comfort zone."
Self-reflection at Alverno is balanced with a respect for society's needs. Being civic-minded is an important goal for the college, whose visionary president, Joel Read, is a Catholic nun. Read has said that Alverno wants students to come to see citizenship as something "you just do".
Tom Ehrlich, former president of Indiana University and now a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, says the college's ideals for areas such as public duty are helped by the fact that Alverno is a small, religious-founded female institution. "There is a cohesiveness at Alverno. At other universities, faculty is not always in lock-step," he said.
Mentkowski says religion is not guiding the goals. Society and governments, she says, expect universities to prepare students for the long term, which means going beyond just preparing for a job. "Who is learning for? Is it for the individual?" Mentkowski asks and then answers her question. "It is for society." She believes universities should, like Alverno, "articulate their educational values".
While Britain's Open University may be a member, along with Alverno, of the Ability Based Curriculum Network, Graham Gibbs, research director of the OU Centre for Higher Education Practice, said it is still "lukewarm on skills and capabilities".
He hopes Alverno's theories will become more influential, as institutions in England implement their learning and teaching strategies. "All around the world, higher education is moving towards a greater focus on transferable skills, rather than only on disciplinary content, because that is what employers want and that is what transfers to varied contexts," said Gibbs.
According to Staten, Alverno's focus on broader abilities creates confident graduates. "Once in my first 'real' job, as an assistant research microbiologist, I saw that I was confident and comfortable working in project teams, committees and task forces. I could communicate in small or large group settings and write reports and project plans effectively.
"Eventually, I started leading projects, managing people, and assessing and evaluating their performance," said Staten, 46, who is now teaching public school teachers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and working as a part-time instructor at Alverno.
As the little college with the high rankings welcomes more students into its comfortable setting this year, larger universities, spending time on grade-point averages and pop quizzes, may want to look at sending some of their members to Milwaukee to take a walk through the woods behind the campus to do some self-reflection.