Assessment

Essay on making student learning the focus of higher education

America faces a crisis in higher learning. Too many college graduates are not prepared to think critically and creatively, speak and write cogently and clearly, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility and accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet the expectations of employers. In a metaphorical sense, we are losing our minds. How can this be if American higher education is supposed to be the best in the world?

The core explanation is this: the academy lacks a serious culture of teaching and learning. When students do not learn enough, we must question whether institutions of higher education deliver enough value to justify their costs. Resolving the learning crisis will therefore require fundamental, thoroughgoing changes in our colleges and universities. There must be real change -- change beyond simplistic answers such as reducing costs and improving efficiency -- to improve value.

What is needed is non-incremental change; to make higher learning a reality, we as a nation must undertake a comprehensive review of undergraduate higher education and introduce dramatic reforms in colleges and universities of all types.

Culture -- in higher education, and in our society -- is at the heart of the matter. We have reduced K-12 schooling to basic skill acquisition that effectively leaves most students underprepared for college-level learning. We have bastardized the bachelor’s degree by allowing it to morph into a ticket to a job (though, today, that ticket often doesn’t get you very far). The academy has adopted an increasingly consumer-based ethic that has produced costly and dangerous effects: the expectations and standards of a rigorous liberal education have been displaced by thinly disguised professional or job training curriculums; teaching and learning have been devalued, deprioritized, and replaced by an emphasis on magazine rankings; and increased enrollment, winning teams, bigger and better facilities, more revenue from sideline businesses, and more research grants have replaced learning as the primary touchstone for decision-making.

Teaching is increasingly left to contingent faculty; tenure-track professors have few incentives to spend time with undergraduates, improve their teaching, or measure what their students are learning. Expectations for hard work in college have fallen victim to smorgasbord-style curriculums, large lecture classes, and institutional needs to retain students in order to make the budget. Minimal student effort is rewarded with inflated grades. None of this makes for higher learning, nor does it adequately prepare students for employment or citizenship. We need to rethink the ends and means of higher education.

Reconstituting the Culture of Higher Education

The current culture -- the shared norms, values, standards, expectations and priorities -- of teaching and learning in the academy is not powerful enough to support true higher learning. As a result, students do not experience the kind of integrated, holistic, developmental, rigorous undergraduate education that must exist as an absolute condition for truly transformative higher learning to occur. We do not demand enough (doing that would conflict with consumer friendliness, perhaps); our standards are not high enough (setting them higher creates retention worries); we accept half-hearted work from students who do not insist on enough from themselves and do not know how to ask for more from their teachers (doing otherwise would make college more serious; how could it still be “fun”?). Degrees have become deliverables because we are no longer willing to make students work hard against high standards to earn them.

A weak educational culture creates all the wrong opportunities. Without academic expectations to bring structure to students’ time, too much time is wasted. In the absence of high academic and behavioral expectations, less demanding peer norms become dominant. In the peer culture, time spent on class work, reading, and reflection must be limited; too much of it becomes a stain on a student’s social value. It has become possible -- even likely -- to survive academically, be retained in school, get passing grades and graduate with a baccalaureate despite long-term patterns of alcohol and other substance abuse that are known to damage the formation of new memories and reduce both the capacity and the readiness to learn. The atmosphere of too many residence halls drives serious students out of their own rooms (functionally, their on-campus homes) to study, write, reflect, and think.

Rethinking higher education means reconstituting institutional culture by rigorously identifying, evaluating and challenging the many damaging accommodations that colleges and universities, individually and collectively, have made (and continue to make) to consumer and competitive pressures over the last several decades. What do we mean by “damaging accommodations?”

We mean the allocation of increasing proportions of institutional resources to facilities, personnel, programs and activities that do not directly and significantly contribute to the kind of holistic, developmental and transformative learning that defines higher learning.

We mean the enormous expenditures devoted purely to securing a “better ranking” in the magazine surveys. We mean the progressive reduction in academic, intellectual, and behavioral expectations that has undermined the culture, learning conditions, and civility of so many campus communities.

We mean the kind of thinking that elevates “branding” and “marketing” in importance and priority above educational programs and academic quality as ways to attract students and secure robust enrollments.

We mean the deplorable practice of building attractive new buildings while offering lackluster first- and second-year courses taught primarily by poorly paid and dispirited contingent faculty.

We mean the assumption that retention is just keeping students in school longer, without serious regard for the quality of their learning or their cumulative learning outcomes at graduation.

We mean giving priority to intercollegiate sports programs while support for the success of the great majority of students who are not athletes suffers.

As a society we allow -- in fact, condone -- institutional policies, practices, and systems in higher education that, taken together, make good teaching a heroic act performed by truly dedicated faculty members, rather than the universal expectation and norm across campuses. Similarly, we allow the most regressive features of undergraduate culture to undermine the motivation and desire for intellectual growth of many good students; in many ways, being a serious student is also a heroic act. We allow passivity to dominate students’ already slight engagement with courses and faculty.

Collectively Putting Learning First

The common lament that higher education has become a business, or that it has emerged from its recent struggles having too much “corporate” character, is not the primary issue. The primary problem is that the current culture of colleges and universities no longer puts learning first -- and in most institutions, that culture perpetuates a fear of doing so. Isolated examples to the contrary exist, but are only the exceptions that prove the rule. The leaders of many, if not most, colleges and universities might agree with this assessment of the problem, but would likely argue, with some justice, that no single institution can risk being the only one to change; that restoring attention to the fundamentals, rather than the frills, would put that one institution at serious risk. Indeed, it is true that this is a collective problem, and that action by many schools, supported by a strong national impetus for change, is a necessary condition for success.

In calling for the kind of serious, systemic rethinking that directly and unflinchingly accepts the challenge of improving undergraduate higher education, we are asking for four things; taken together, they demand, and would catalyze, a profound, needed, and overdue cultural change in our colleges and universities.

1. The widespread acceptance and application of a new and better touchstone for decision-making in higher education, linked to a strong framework of essential, core principles. A touchstone is a standard, or criterion, that serves as the basis for judging something; in higher education, that touchstone must be the quality and quantity of learning. A touchstone and a clear conceptual framework link our advocacy for change to a powerful set of ideas, commitments, and principles against which to test current policies, practices, and proposals for reform. 


2. A comprehensive re-evaluation of undergraduate education and experience guided by those core principles. This must occur both nationally, as an essential public conversation, and within the walls of institutions of all types, missions, and sizes.

3. The leadership and actual implementation and renewal of undergraduate higher education needs to be led by the academy itself, supported by boards of trustees, higher education professional organizations, and regional accrediting bodies alike. Such rethinking ought to be transparent, informed by public conversation, and enacted through decisions based on the new touchstone, improving the quality and quantity of learning.

4. Learning assessment must become inextricably linked to institutional efficacy. The formative assessment of learning should become an integral part of instruction in courses and other learning experiences of all types, and the summative assessment of learning, at the individual student, course, program, and institution levels should be benchmarked against high, clear, public standards.

Both the process and the results of a serious rethinking of higher education will be more likely to succeed and less likely to cause unwanted harm if that rethinking is generated by an authentic public discussion linked to and supporting cultural change in colleges and universities than if it is imposed by a disappointed, frustrated nation through its legislative and regulatory authority. Levels of dissatisfaction with the priorities and outcomes of higher education among parents, alumni, employers, and elected officials are unlikely to decline absent significant reform.

Cultural problems require cultural solutions, starting with a national conversation about what is wrong, and what is needed, in higher education. The country should reasonably expect higher education to lead this conversation. For real change to occur, discussions about the quality and quantity of learning in higher education and the need for reform must occur at multiple levels, in many places, and over a significant period of time -- most importantly on campuses themselves.

The national conversation provides context, direction, and motive -- but only many intimate and passionate conversations among colleagues in every institution of higher education can ground the discussion enough to give it sufficient power to bring change. Progress will not be made in improving the quality and quantity of learning -- in restoring higher learning to higher education -- unless both the public discussion and the multilayered, multistep processes of change on our campuses occur.

If enough change occurs in enough places, and if our public expectations remain high and consistent, learning may become the touchstone for decision-making; the quality and quantity of learning -- documented by rigorous assessment -- may become both each institution’s greatest concern and the basis for comparisons between various colleges and universities; degrees may once again be earned, not delivered as entitlements; faculties may again focus on learning, rather than instruction, and on learning assessments, rather than credit hours; and every college and university might have the data and information it needs to determine and communicate the value of what it does to prospective students, parents, accrediting organizations, donors, and the public. With these changes, students will be more prepared for the world of work, armed with the most important skills and knowledge, and having graduated with something of real value.

Cultural change from within, across the entire spectrum and expanse of higher education, will be disruptive, and it needs to be. But such change has the unique promise of restoring higher learning in higher education while preserving its extraordinary diversity. Without it, external interventions and demands that will be far more disruptive and far less tolerant of institutional diversity become increasingly likely.

Richard P. Keeling is principal, and Richard H. Hersh is senior consultant, for Keeling & Associates, a higher education consulting practice. They are authors of the recent book, We’re Losing Our Minds: Rethinking American Higher Education (Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), from which this essay is partly excerpted.

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Imagine yourself emerging from the Way Back Machine in London, England. It’s 1526. Henry VIII is on the throne. You furtively duck into a shop, and quickly head to the back room. You’ve come to buy an English translation of the New Testament. The mere possession of this book is punishable by death.

In the 1520s, having open access to books (knowledge) was a dangerous game. It threatened the establishment. It meant that ordinary people could see for themselves what the elite had guarded so closely.

Enter Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who commissioned the publication of the “Great Bible,” in English, making it available to every church where it was chained to the pulpit to ensure it was accessible and didn’t “disappear.” While the publisher paid for this access with his life, in three short years readers were provided so that everyone, even the illiterate, could hear the Word of God proclaimed in their native English.

Fast-forward 472 years. You’re a college student. You’ve taken advantage of some amazing opportunities in the online world. You’ve listened to Nobel laureates discuss the Eurozone crisis and explain how current difficulties relate (or not) to classical theories of economics. You’ve worked through the underlying physics and chemistry for nearly every episode of "MythBusters." You regularly watch the TED lectures. And you’ve even taken courses from the Open Learning Initiative and from OpenCourseWare at MIT. Now you want the academic credit for those forms of learning.

Although you won’t actually be burned at the stake as Cranmer was, you have a very good chance of experiencing the modern version of this torture because it is equally threatening to the elite. It goes something like this.

First, you’ll be asked to produce the sacred document, otherwise known as a transcript, indicating that you officially took the course. No transcript you say? Sorry — your learning is then considered “illegitimate,” and you’re then often cast out into the night where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth as you stumble back to the very beginning of college to start over.

While an exaggeration, today -- through such outlets as TED, various open-source course initiatives, and primary sources through digital content providers -- we all have access to the knowledge that previously was the province of academia. In the same way that access to the New Testament gave otherwise uneducated English people access to the very heart of Christianity, that access is “dangerous.” It threatens the central notion of what a college or university exists to do, and so, by extension, threatens the very raison d’etre of faculty and staff.

Threats to a well-entrenched status quo are not well-received. But the funny thing about many of them — whether books or ideas — is that they often quickly become the mainstream.

Vu Déjà 

Higher education is facing the very situation that confronted our colleagues in the P-12 world when home schooling threatened the world order. Initially considered a fringe activity of substandard quality, the sector figured out that if appropriate standards (i.e., learning outcomes) were agreed upon and stated clearly, it didn’t really matter what path students took to get to the knowledge destination.

Higher education needs to take a lesson from that experience and work much harder on specifying our analog of the Common Core State Standards. The tools are there, and have been there for a very, very long time. It just has not been in our self-interest to develop and agree on them. But we’d better, and we’d better do it now. Otherwise, it will be done to us.

What Thomas Cranmer figured out was that it was impossible to execute people fast enough to stem the desire to access the new sources of knowledge. So he wholeheartedly adopted the reform, and made it his own. What we need to learn from that is to accept the reality that anyone can access the same information we academics used to carefully mete out, so the best approach is to adapt and make that reality our own. We need to create a higher educational system that embraces competency-based achievement, realign the milestones by which we gauge increasing levels of knowledge/competence, and redefine degrees on this basis.

We have an instructive example. Standard 14 of the Middle States’ Characteristics of Excellence pertains to the assessment of student learning. The standard requires that students be told what “…knowledge, skills, and competencies [they] are expected to exhibit upon successful completion of a course, academic program, co-curricular program, general education requirement, or other specific set of experiences… .”

As stated in the Standard, the objective is “…to answer the question, ‘Are our students learning what we want them to learn?’ ” Such assessment is “an essential component of the assessment of institutional effectiveness” (Characteristics of Excellence,, p. 63). The description then goes on to discuss how learning outcome assessment should be designed and its results used. Nowhere is there a discussion of credits.

Given that we already have an accreditation system based on the assessment of student learning (i.e., knowledge/competence acquisition), then it is a rather straightforward matter of taking the existing approach to the next step to complete the conversion process from one grounded on credit accumulation (irrespective of learning) to one based on demonstrated learning outcomes.

More specifically, we need to adopt the approach already taken in many professions of clearly articulating what students are supposed to know and be able to demonstrate at various levels of educational attainment, and create accreditation standards and metrics that reflect it. This would put real teeth in the assessment of student learning outcomes by putting consequences on not doing it well, as well as put the focus on where the content comes from and its quality assurance that underlies the knowledge/competence we expect students to acquire.

When that happens, the recognition of prior learning becomes very straightforward, and its source becomes irrelevant as long as the appropriate competencies are shown. In other words, we already have all the basic elements necessary to take the Cranmeresque step of moving from banning the immediate and unquestioned acceptance of demonstrated knowledge/competence to creating the postsecondary equivalent of the Book of Common Prayer.

The Brave New World

Adopting an accreditation system predicated on the authentic assessment of student learning outcomes liberates faculty to serve a much more important role — that of academic mentor and guide for the student’s learning and knowledge/competence acquisition process. In a way, this will return us to the past, whereby through the judicious use of technology faculty will be able to provide far more individualized instruction to many more students than the current system could ever possible allow or support. In another way, it means that the kind of individualized attention we give to doctoral students can be extended to all. This would be a major improvement for students and faculty alike.

To continue to have legitimacy, accreditation must focus on the core issue — student learning. Accreditation must begin certifying that students actually learn, and that what they learn matches the stated objectives of a course, an academic program, or a specific set of objectives (such as in general education). In short, accreditation must move from certifying that an institution claims that it is doing what it is supposed to do to certifying that students are learning and progressing in their acquisition of knowledge/competence.

Because people can simply wander around the Web and pick up content that is neither amalgamated by a content provider nor verified for accuracy, it will become necessary for some entity to engage in quality assurance in terms of learning outcomes. The job of verifiying bona fide knowledge/competencies and establishing where along the continuum of knowledge/competence acquisition a student falls can become the province of organizations that resemble LearningCounts.org, or even broader entities.

In both cases (i.e., using content offered by an certified provider or doing it on your own with no official guidance), a credential or type of certification would be provided each time a new level of knowledge/competence is reached. The student would then deposit those credentials or certifications into a credential bank for future reference. The student -- not the registrar’s office -- owns the credential

Degrees Deconstructed and Decoupled

We get to this alternate accreditation world in two ways: by clearly defining what each degree means and aligning accreditation with content providers (not institutions that confer degrees).

This requires that we come to quick agreement on what different types of degrees mean. In the United States the TuningUSA effort is just beginning the work of more clearly articulating what knowledge/competencies a student is supposed to demonstrate before being awarded a postsecondary degree.

This is in contrast with the current practice of awarding degrees based on a student's spending a specified minimum amount of clock-defined time amassing an arbitrary number of credits and obtaining a minimum set of grades. Nothing in the current definition says anything about what knowledge or competencies the student actually demonstrates. We need to test it — look up the degree requirements for English literature degrees across a variety of institutions and compare them. This loose approach is in contrast to efforts in other parts of the world, such as Europe, where degree qualifications discussions have been ongoing for over a decade.

Once the accreditation focus is placed on student learning outcomes for real, accreditation becomes tied to learning and is decoupled from institutions granting degrees. Accreditation then becomes aligned with entities that provide content and the parcels or “courses” in which they are delivered. The seal of accreditation would then be placed on the separate pieces of content offered by content providers who demonstrate that the content offered comes with embedded authentic assessment of learning. To be sure, most of these providers will still be postsecondary institutions, but the accreditation umbrella is extended more broadly to reflect the current reality that content comes from many sources.

In such a system, regional accreditation no longer gives thumbs-up or thumbs-down only on the traditional degree-granting institution. Rather, it focuses on what is provided by any entity that wants to claim it’s in the business of offering content. If and only if that content meets certain standards would it be “accredited.”

Shifting the focus from the institutional level to the content level would strengthen the link between accreditation and federal financial aid eligibility. If and only if a student was using content from an accredited source would the student be able to apply for and receive federal financial aid. Likewise, if the student has amassed knowledge/competencies from self-instruction or from noncertified sources and wants to convert that into “certified learning,” then federal financial aid could be spent only at accredited entities in that business.

Charting a Future Course

The possible future I have described here is both scary and exciting. We can choose to sit down in the captain’s chair and help chart our own course by fully embracing new opportunities while really being serious about quality as defined as authentic assessment of the acquisition of knowledge/competence. Or we can put up the shields, claim that the way we provide access to knowledge now is to remain immutable for all time and that change will bring our world crashing down and condemn us to eternal damnation, and have a modern equivalent of Thomas Cranmer bring it all crashing down.

It’s up to us. Shields will not work. We have only one real option if we want to build on the true legacy and meaning of education: to boldly go where accreditation has never gone before.

John C. Cavanaugh is Chancellor of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. This essay is adapted from a speech he gave Tuesday at the annual meeting of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

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