Do We Assess Learning? Pull Up a Chair...

Even knowing what questions to ask about how colleges teach and students learn is difficult, says Bernard Fryshman. The answers? How much time do you have?


August 7, 2008

A comfortable chair. Because we are going to have a long conversation. We’ll begin by looking at what kind of questions you have. After all, postsecondary institutions have lots of goals. Do you want to know whether the school will help a student learn to think, to examine, or to innovate? And of course every one of those talents may differ depending on the discipline. Do you care about what’s happening in the fine arts department or in engineering? And even in engineering, is it civil engineering or software development? Different talents, different intellectual demands, different skills.

But wait, we didn’t ask you yet about the student you’re interested in helping. Is he bright and driven, or laid back and not particularly ambitious? Was his high school a place that turned him on to learning or to text messaging? Does he need remedial coursework or is his transcript full of AP credits? Does your daughter stand out or is she happy sitting at the back of a large lecture hall? Will she grow under pressure or shrivel up and leave? Does your child want competition or collaboration?

How will you pay for college? Are you comfortable sending your child to a large public college or will the small expensive private university be the answer, given that this will mean your child will have to take a job? We’ve had experience where a part-time job compromised a student’s ability to cope with the work, while others simply flourished and grew their part-time jobs into careers.

The order in which students take courses will make a difference. Some need a term of travel before they get into school, while others want to hit the books hard as early as possible. Lots of students need to wander a little bit, either through the world or through the college catalog. Some want to graduate as quickly as possible while others have to take a couple of courses just to see what really fits.

The nature of our faculty varies, too. For some students our pompous, sonorous, abstruse scholars perform miracles, while other students identify best with young, freshly graduated, and up-to-date new hires. Some students get hooked on extracurricular activities, putting out newspapers and running student governments while their grades flounder. Others get their feet wet in research and never look back.

We really haven’t addressed your question yet, have we? We will. But first we have to consider the size of the college. Some big colleges have so much to offer that a student can change her mind several times and still remain comfortably within the confines of the school. Other institutions are highly focused: Students who fit will fit well. Those who don’t will transfer out. The level of the offerings of a school sometimes depends on the kind of student being admitted. Intensity and rigor change because nobody wants to fail an entire class. Will your child do well in a less demanding environment or will she be bored to tears? Have you thought about the social environment? Will a party school destroy your son’s motivation, or will a good group of friends help him find himself as an individual?

Come to think of it, we may not be able to answer your question. Because assessment is not a number, assessment is a conversation. Learning outcomes are not numbers. We simply can’t assimilate all the variables -- those noted above and so many others -- without papering over most of the things that really matter. There are so many permutations, even a statistical approach is not viable. Because each person’s interaction with higher education is unique, the sample size is always one, no matter how large the population.

There are no clear answers -- and not because we wouldn’t like to give you an answer, nor is it because we think “you won’t understand.” There is little that can be measured with any degree of certainty. A shoemaker can perhaps be judged by the quality of the shoes he turns out. He and his colleagues start with identical pieces of leather, nails, shoelaces and thread. The products have few enough variations that there can be some comparison between the two.

Not so, colleges and universities. Every individual coming in has so complex a series of characteristics, and emerges after so many different activities and variables, that any comparison or generalization is meaningless. Sometimes, when large enough numbers of students from similar enough backgrounds travel through a narrow program that is relatively unchanging, one can reach some general conclusions. But only on a discipline by discipline basis -- anything broader brings to bear so many different variables as to make assigning a numerical value to student learning outcomes an exercise in futility.

If someone needs a number, they can easily get one in a crowded bakery. If someone needs an answer, please invite them to pull up a chair.


Bernard Fryshman is an accreditor and a professor of physics.


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