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Degrees That Matter: Moving Higher Education to a Learning Systems Paradigm

reviewed by Virginia Montero Hernandez - June 01, 2018

coverTitle: Degrees That Matter: Moving Higher Education to a Learning Systems Paradigm
Author(s): Natasha A. Jankowski & David W. Marshall
Publisher: Stylus Publishing, Sterling, VA
ISBN: 1620364646, Pages: 216, Year: 2017
Search for book at Amazon.com

Natasha Jankowski and David Marshall, authors of Degrees that Matter: Moving Higher Education to a Learning Systems Paradigm, draw from their experience working at the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) to provide a critical analysis of the construction of learning environments in higher education institutions and propose strategies for their improvement. The authors discussion about learning in higher education brings to the table the voices and concerns embraced by higher level decision makers, accreditation agencies, and practitioners. Jankowski and Marshall call on colleges and universities to fight against the pervasive effects of a culture of compliance and claim ownership of their academic environments.

The books premise is the idea that graduates from higher education institutions today must be fully equipped to effectively engage in the labor market and society as a whole. The authors highlight that neoliberal economies and globalized societies require colleges and universities to have learning environments that encourage students to become highly flexible individuals who are willing to work collaboratively, manage large amounts of information, and solve problems creatively.

As a point of departure in the discussion, the authors highlight the simultaneous occurrence of two events in the construction of academic life at colleges and universities: (a) the uncritical repetition of learning-oriented practices and (b) the deliberate innovation of learning-oriented practices. While apparently contradictory, these two phenomena are constructed by social actors as part of the organizational routines within higher education institutions. On the one hand, instructors, students, and administrators can engage in the uncritical reproduction of practices driven by a culture of compliance. On the other, when fractures are created within this process of reproduction, university and college actors can engage in a meaningful construction of learning environments. The authors advocate for the college and university actors engagement in the purposeful construction of novel practices and outcomes.

To assist in this process, the authors present a conceptual model, the Learning Systems Paradigm, to guide the construction of student-centered learning environments. As part of their graduate education, university faculty receive scarce guidance as to how to understand learning and develop effective instructional techniques (Marsh & Hattie, 2002; Menges & Austin, 2001; Pescosolido, 1991); the Learning System Paradigm is meant to fill this gap. At the core of this conceptual model, the authors identify collaboration (consensus and communication) and the search for alignment as core building blocks. Alignment involves curriculum mapping, scaffolding, assignment design, delineation of career pathways, and co-curricular engagement (p. 51). The achievement of alignment is based on the ability of college and university actors to engage in communication and reach consensus.

Chapters Two and Three offer detailed descriptions of the conceptual dimensions of the Learning System Paradigm, which is built upon three underlying assumptions: first, that learning is a pervasive and holistic experience that extends beyond the classroom setting; second, that learning assessment should be enacted as a practice of reflection and collective discussion; and third, that teaching is to be constructed as a collaborative practice that includes fellow teachers, administrators, and students.

The book has two main strengths. The first is its call to re-signify learning not only as a socio-cognitive task but also as an organizational endeavor that requires the conscious alignment of resources, actors, goals, and strategies. The second is the practical guidance that the authors provide to implement the conceptual model at colleges and universities. Chapters Four and Five provide multiple guidelines that university and college faculty and administrators can use to collaboratively design learning environments that foster student development and achievement.

The reconfiguration of faculty and student roles is at the core of the guiding principles for implementing the Learning System Paradigm. On the one hand, faculty are expected to become practitioner-researchers who are constantly analyzing and reflecting on both their instructional practices and participation in the construction of learning environments. On the other hand, students are expected to be included in decision making processes and become active participants in the design and implementation of learning environments. The authors point out that students bring funds of knowledge that faculty and other institutional agents can use to innovate learning experiences. As a result, the implementation of the Learning Systems Paradigm is meant to honor students backgrounds, voices, and creative skills.   

Whereas the book provides a solid characterization of the Learning System Paradigm, the discussion of potential barriers to its implementation is peripheral. Although the authors name multiple examples of colleges and university initiatives where the implementation of a Learning System Paradigm has operated successfully, there is not enough analysis of the complexity embedded in the implementation of a large scale, organizational-level implementation. Chapter Six provides a review of common concerns that can emerge among faculty and administrators when attempting to align structures and resources that promote holistic learning environments. While the authors mention faculty workload, apathy or suspicion, and assessment as potential barriers, they do not mention the ways in which politics of race, discipline differentiation, or academic ego can hinder the construction of a shared language for collaboration and alignment. Similarly, the authors superficially explore the ways in which administrative bureaucracy and a compliance-driven culture can constrain opportunities for creative expression. Authors fail to discuss the ways in which university and college budget cuts create stressful situations and undermine creative efforts.

This book is an important reminder of the necessity for college and university actors to become aware of the critical role they play in the construction of effective learning environments. The authors advocate for a renewed sense of agency where students, faculty, and administrators do not succumb to a culture of compliance. The authors not only ask for a more active and conscious participation in the construction of learning environments, but also for a more honest and public dialogue about the dynamics that work or do not work in higher education institutions. This book is required reading for educational leaders who want to construct creative, caring, and collaborative forms of learning in higher education institutions.


Marsh, H. W., & Hattie, J. (2002). The relation between research productivity and teaching effectiveness: Complementary, antagonistic, or independent constructs? The Journal of Higher Education, 73(5), 603641.

Menges, R. J., & Austin, A. E. (2001). Teaching in higher education. In V. Richardson (Ed.), Handbook of research on teaching (4th ed.) (pp. 1,1221,156). Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association.

Pescosolido, B. A. (1991). The sociology of the professions and the profession of sociology: Professional responsibility, teaching, and graduate training. Teaching Sociology, 19(3), 351361.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 01, 2018
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 22394, Date Accessed: 2/15/2022 7:27:30 AM

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About the Author
  • Virginia Montero Hernandez
    California State University, Stanislaus
    E-mail Author
    VIRGINIA MONTERO HERNANDEZ received her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of California, Riverside in 2010. She worked as an assistant professor and program coordinator of the Masterís Program in Education at the Autonomous University of the State of Morelos in Mexico. At present, she works as an assistant professor at California State University, Stanislaus. She has co-authored a book, book chapters, and several articles in the field of higher education, including critical issues in community colleges, the academic profession, the context of Mexican higher education, and faculty learning. Her research explores the construction of educational experiences in higher education institutions by addressing micro and macro categories of analysis such as agency, identity, resilience, curricular structures, learning dynamics, interactional structures, organizational structures and behaviors, policy, and cultural resources. Dr. Montero Hernandez honors cultural diversity and is passionate about developing effective learning environments where individuals can gain self-knowledge, build skills up, and define personal projects.
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