Walking in Their Shoes: Do Students Learn From Other Perspectives?

Oct 21, 2010

A new report from the American Association of Colleges and Universities examines the climate of 'perspective-taking' on college campuses. The group found that while most schools aspire to teach their students diverse viewpoints, few students are truly engaging with different perspectives.

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Do students really take other viewpoints seriously?

The American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) set out to answer that question in Engaging Diverse Viewpoints: What Is the Campus Climate for Perspective-Taking?, the latest study in their Core Commitments initiative. The Core Commitments series explores the role of personal and social responsibility on American college campuses.

In its latest report, the AAC&U argues that 'perspective-taking - the ability to engage and learn from perspectives and experiences different from one's own - is a crucial catalyst for intellectual and moral growth.' We learn more about ourselves, the world and the subjects we're studying when we can see through others' eyes.

Most students and educators recognize the importance of perspective-taking. The AAC&U found that 58.4% of students and 77.3% of campus faculty and administrators strongly agreed that 'helping students recognize the importance of taking seriously the perspectives of others should be a major focus of their campuses.' Yet a gap persists between 'should' and 'do' - only about a third of both students and college professionals strongly agreed that their institutions make perspective-taking a real priority.

The researchers also found a gap between faculty and learner perceptions of students' perspective-taking abilities. While 63.1% of students reported being 'respectful of diverse perspectives' when they started college, only 7% of campus professionals agreed.

The gap shrunk somewhat when respondents were asked whether students developed the ability to learn from different perspectives during college. A little over half of students 'strongly agreed' with this assertion, as did about two-thirds of campus professionals.

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Navigating Campus Controversies

Perspective-taking isn't just important for learning. It can also affect the quality of campus life.

AAC&U researchers asked respondents whether students are respectful of their peers when discussing controversial campus issues. While over 80% of students generally agreed with this assertion, less than one-third strongly agreed.

Similarly, while about 80% of students generally agreed that it's safe to hold unpopular opinions on campus, only just over a third strongly agreed with this assertion. It is perhaps revealing that fewer seniors (30.3%) than freshmen (40.3%) strongly agreed - years of campus experience may have revealed the true social damage that taking unpopular positions can do.

In fact, researchers found demographic differences in many measures. Both female and minority students were more likely than male and white students to believe that they had entered college with respect for diverse perspectives. The same groups were also more likely to believe that they had developed a more diverse outlook during their school years.

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