Reforming Higher Ed #4: Assess Students Learning

“I assign grades. Isn’t that enough?” That was my attitude toward “outcomes assessment” in the 1980s, and it is a sentiment frequently expressed today. So far as I could tell then, the push for outcomes assessment amounted to a boondoggle to provide administrators and accreditation experts with additional employment. After all, who likes to have their expertise and performance called into question? But after becoming a dean, I quickly changed my mind.

Demand for Accountability

Every new professor who teaches introductory courses to first-year students soon learns that most students come to college woefully unprepared. Their numeracy, communications, and critical thinking skills are atrocious. Some studies indicate that as many as 80% of entering students need developmental (remedial) instruction in order to survive academically. Clearly, secondary schools are failing to prepare their graduates for college. But further, studies such as Academically Adrift indicate that too many students don’t improve much during their college years. Business leaders complain of having to devote too many resources to educating entry-level employees in basic communications and other skills. Politicians and government officials have begun to take note. Federal and state agencies have begun to exert significant pressure on regional accrediting bodies to insist on assessing student learning.

Although the push for learning assessment most often comes from sources external to a college or university, I soon learned as a dean that student learning is hampered by factors other than lack of preparation or student laziness (although there is plenty of the latter!). Many students work long hours at non-academic jobs to make ends meet. Many suffer from physical, emotional, or learning disabilities that hamper progress. And as the median age of undergraduates continues to increase, many find themselves caught in a tangled web of domestic and employment responsibilities. Finally, the nature and uneven quality of instruction can inhibit learning.

The Kind of Assessment Needed

Academic support services and counseling can often help students improve their learning, but most assessment initiatives focus on the quality of academic programs and the methods of instruction. Let’s face it: all too many college faculty teach as they were taught. In the most fortunate cases, they encountered superb teachers who held their attention and encouraged them to become independent thinkers. In the less fortunate instances, poor instructors passed along some really bad habits, thereby ensuring inferior teaching for subsequent generations. Assessment of the effectiveness of different teaching methods and the organization of academic programs can help remedy the situation.

The first and most important step is for individual faculty and academic departments or programs to develop clear educational goals for students. Such goals do not need to be stated in quantitative terms, but they should be accompanied by statements about how faculty can discern whether students have achieved them.

Many faculty members simply do not think in these terms: they typically speak of “covering” specified material in class, presuming that some sort of learning will occur simply through a process of exposure to course content. Identifying goals and objectives represents a new approach for them, and academic administrators would  be wise to recognize a need for faculty development in such matters. (Some of the best work in this area is now available through the Center for Teaching Advancement and Assessment Research at Rutgers University and at the Office of Academic Planning and Assessment at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.)

Just as it is important to recognize and to implement the sort of assessment of student learning that can lead to more effective teaching and program improvement, it is also important to avoid the kind of assessment that much of society seeks to impose. Critics of the assessment or accountability movement (see Gaye Tuckman, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, University of Chicago Press, 2009) are correct in pointing out nefarious motives of many inside and outside higher education who want to reduce education to training for the labor market and who want to implement draconian cuts in education budgets. Academic assessment, done correctly, does not lead to “teaching to the test” or simply teaching a set of skills. It can and should be used, however, to improve learning and to restore confidence of the wider society in education as worthy of support. Without it, reforming education will fail both educationally and with regard to renewal of public trust.

Reforming Higher Ed #3: Teach Differently

Student using smartphone

Student Texting

Faculty anecdotes about the “cell phone follies” abound. Increasingly, students text one another, interact through Facebook or Twitter, or surf the Internet rather than attend to what is happening in class. They often disrupt others, and learning prescribed material comes to a halt. When called to account, as one of my friends reports, a student might respond with a loud “F#%&k you!” What is going on? Is this generation of students merely a bunch of rude, spoiled brats? Perhaps, but I’m more inclined to think that they merely regard what happens in class to be irrelevant to their lives and, worse, boring. Continue reading

Reforming Higher Ed #2: Demand Rigor

Mathematics Lecture

Mathematics Lecture

In a previous post, “Adrift without a Paddle,” I noted “an ever deeper descent into an anti-intellectualistic, narcissistic culture in which students pursue pre-employment, technical training with single-minded purpose while, nevertheless, they expect to be rewarded with high grades and degrees apart from real achievement.” This phenomenon of empty degrees worries government officials, business and community leaders, and the general public. What should be done to restore real achievement on the part of college students generally? Continue reading

Reforming Higher Ed #1: Stop Bribing Politicians?

For years, colleges and universities have pandered to politicians and government officials. Honorary degrees, named facilities, and administrators’ flattering remarks on public occasions provide the usual currency. Sweetheart employment contracts to family members and other benefits are sometimes conferred to assure access to and support from political officials. Occasionally, benefits are provided to an official directly. One such case came to light recently concerning Brevard Community College’s (BCC) concluding a lucrative book deal with Florida State Senator, Mike Haridopolos.

Mike Haridopolos

Sen. Mike Haridopolos

Continue reading

Top Ten Ways to Avoid Being Noticed on the Web

In light of the glut of truly atrocious websites on the internet, it seems that many people are working much too hard to avoid being noticed. To save everyone some time and effort, I’ve decided to help by listing the top ten ways to fly under the radar in cyberspace. Here they are:

#10. Put nothing but flash video on your opening page.

#9. Never seek assistance from a copywriter or communications professional.

#8. Pay no attention to search engine optimization (SEO) techniques.

#7. Never engage the services of a professional web designer.

#6. Avoid proofreading your content for spelling or grammar; just slap it up there!

#5. Simply publish someone else’s stuff on your site.

#4. Put all your content on one page and then leave it untouched.

#3. Never publish anything that people might want or need to know.

#2. Never tell anyone about your website, especially via social media.

#1.  Here it is! The number-one way to avoid being noticed on the web:

Never create or publish your own website!

Let’s go for 20! Based on what you see on the web, add your own suggestions.