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Ensign College President's Report

January 2020

The Sweet Spot

By President Bruce C. Kusch

Students walking through the campus courtyard.President Kusch is implementing Subject Matter Immersion at Ensign College, a method to reach Deep Learning—to know, do, and become---based on principles of learning theory, pedagogy, and a Spirit-Centered learning environment.

When I left Silicon Valley to become a college professor, I wondered why college wasn’t more like the world of work. While teaching business, I had the idea that if I could deeply immerse my students in a real, authentic learning environment, they’d be much better prepared to succeed in the very competitive world they were about to enter. I have to confess that I didn’t have the courage to fully experiment with my idea until about three years ago, when something finally gave me the nudge I needed. For years I have followed employer surveys naming skills that employers want but aren’t seeing in college graduates—skills such as leadership, agility, written and verbal skills, collaboration, and problem-solving. Two reliable studies even reported that while 96 percent of college administrators think they are doing an adequate job of preparing graduates, only 11 percent of employers agree. That gap was shocking to me, and after seeing it, I decided I needed to do something. My idea for this change became what we call “subject matter immersion” at Ensign College.

What is subject matter immersion? It’s something like this: On the first day of an accounting course, the teacher says, “Welcome to Legacy Cookie Company. You are our new accounting department. We’ve gathered all the bills, receipts, bank statements, etc. here in this shoebox. Your first task is to create last quarter’s financial statements.” All semester long, students learn accounting by doing “real” work and being immersed as accountants for the Legacy Cookie Company.

“The miracle of this process is that when students embrace and experience subject matter immersion, they don’t want to learn any other way,” says President Bruce C. Kusch about Subject Matter Immersion at Ensign College.

Accounting isn’t the only program undergoing this transformation. We’ve used this same concept in other disciplines across campus to great success. We take students out of their comfort zone and ask them to create an experience in which they learn some of those skills the survey spoke about. Through this process, they are more motivated and engaged learners who become responsible for their own learning.

Now of course what the students experience varies by discipline, and you might wonder, “How do you make sure that students don’t wander off the path of developing important skills?” Well, the expected course outcomes are well defined and made very clear to the students. Everything that is student created must satisfy those outcomes.

The miracle of this process is that when students embrace and experience subject matter immersion, they don’t want to learn any other way. That’s when we see a remarkable transformation. As their self-confidence soars, they discover the potential deep within them, and they excitedly become responsible for their own learning. It’s not unusual for a student to contact me and tell me about how their experiences are changing them.

Students are not the only ones facing uncertainty with this challenge of a campus-wide implementation. There are also growing pains for teachers as their traditional role in the classroom changes. Change like this can be very hard. Maybe that’s why I didn’t experiment with subject matter immersion all those years ago. But as faculty embrace it, they’re energized and excited, and they grow just as much as the students. Leslie Robbins, the faculty member who pioneered this effort with me, said, “I thought I was a really good teacher, but through this experience, I realized I had not yet done my best teaching.”

My goal has been for a full implementation of subject matter immersion for all Ensign College courses by this fall, and I have been very pleased with the results thus far. The true goal of these changes is to bless more students, and it’s thrilling to see that happening. What we are striving to do at Ensign College right now feels like it’s in the sweet spot of what the Lord wants and what employers say they want from our graduates.

I can’t possibly finish without saying thank you. A large percentage of our students receive some form of financial aid to help them with their education and would not be able to attend Ensign College without it. Your assistance is vital in the work that we do. It enables students from all over the world who are led by the Spirit to come and have an opportunity to be educated in a powerful and meaningful way and to become capable and trusted disciples of Christ.

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