Lately I’ve been thinking about assessment and how good teaching is measured in higher education. Primary and secondary schools now rely heavily on student success with standardized tests and teacher success in implementing prescribed instruction. While this system is designed to evaluate good teaching by the impact on student learning, the assessment measures would not be appropriate for higher education, which shifts from competency to high order skill objectives like critical thinking and global awareness.
Ever since I entered higher education 15 years ago, first as a student, and now as a professor, I’ve seen teachers evaluated through three main measures: teaching demonstrations, classroom evaluations, and student evaluations. All three of these components scrutinize the teacher, rather than the learner because measuring student learning in higher education is much more subjective, dependent on institutional make up and mission, save some attempts at gathering quantitative data. How can measurements of good teaching be tied to significant data on student learning in higher education?
Teaching demonstrations are the first assessment of collegiate teachers, during the interview process for new positions. The weight placed on the demonstration will vary depending on the type of institution–R1 vs. SLAC–and perhaps to some extent on the discipline (i.e., humanities, STEM, professional degree programs, etc.). Teaching demonstrations are inherently focused on the teacher, even though teaching implies that there is also a learner. Search committees are looking for a fit, someone that brings a breath of fresh air or conforms to departmental culture. Teachers interviewing for positions are measured on performance, not impact.
Classroom evaluations are completed by colleagues and administrators for use in a professor’s promotion and tenure dossier. Like teaching demonstrations, the focus of a classroom evaluation is on the teacher: was the instructor prepared? does the instructor demonstrate competency with topic? did the instructor begin and end class on time? Even questions more sensitive to student learning still focus on the teacher: did the instructor make effective use of technology and media? did the instructor answer student questions clearly and effectively? did the instructor engage all students in the class?
Student evaluations cover many of the same questions as classroom evaluations. And even if a focus on teacher performance is still present, there is also the new angle of student satisfaction. While a liberal education aims to empower students to be critical and reflective, the intent behind students evaluations is not always matched by their use. Some institutions try to mediate the schism by adding questions that invite students to reflect on their performance. But in many cases those questions are absent or not effectively integrated with the assessment of teaching and learning.
So why is teaching evaluated with little consideration for learning? One of the great rewards of being a college professor is having some autonomy over curriculum and instruction. Any measure to assess student learning through standardized testing and an adherence to prepackaged courses would adversely threaten the whole notion of a liberal education. But is there a more effective way to measure good teachers in higher education that places as much emphasis on student learning as teacher performance? I’d be interested in hearing how other institutions have handled evaluations.
Over the past few years I’ve added more and more graded activities to my classes than ever before. In a 2006 section of early music history, there were 8 total graded items on the syllabus (participation, one presentation, two quizzes, two short papers, a midterm exam, and a final exam; the final exam was worth 40% of the final grade). My 2011 section of early music history had 24 graded items (participation, 12 reflections posted to the online discussion forum, 4 quizzes, 2 tests, 2 short papers, a presentation, a midterm exam, and a final exam; the final exam was worth 20% of the final grade). My recent music theory classes had daily assignments and sight singing recordings, my music history classes had regular discussion forum postings and listening quizzes, and my world music classes had frequent vocabulary and map quizzes. My intention to increase the number of graded activities during the course of the semester was understandable: students were engaged with the material on a daily basis; I could monitor whether students were keeping up with the content; and I could assure the grade-obsessed students that their poor performance on one quiz would have minimal impact on their final average.
In light of some recent findings on student learning, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment, I’ve becoming more critical of this trend. Grades, which we need to remember from time to time, are a score of performance and not always an adequate indicator of learning and the lasting impact of a course. If students can amass 60% of their final grade from low impact/low challenge activities that can be completed the night before, will they be prepared for sustained projects? How can we encourage students to conduct self-guided, regular learning habits when we prompt them with dozens of assignments? Will students be successful after graduation with few high-stake assessment measures?
One approach may be to require regular learning activities, but grade them only sporadically. I’ve applied this approach through surprise (i.e. “pop”) quizzes that permit notes (but not textbooks) or through written reflections, so that students are encouraged to read chapters regularly. Imagine an online discussion forum or quiz for each class meeting that are graded on a few random days during the semester.
Another approach is to tie a variety of learning activities toward one big “performance” in a flipped classroom. The Reacting to the Past (RTTP) gaming model inspires students to self-guide themselves through reading, writing, and problem solving exercises outside of class in order to “win.” Student performance in the classroom is assessed, but the variety of learning measures leading up to the performance are not graded.
A third approach that comes to mind is what I call “participatory homework” in my music theory classes. In addition to a handful of homework assignments that students submit in Finale, daily exercises from the workbook or Moodle are tied to attendance. Students are present in class if they have completed the preliminary work.
A gradual shift toward numerous graded assignments resembles trends in K-12 education, easing the transition to a collegiate learning environment. The intent is good; an aggregate of numerous, low-stake assessments will help more students receive passing grades. But will this lead to success in the future? Life and a competitive global marketplace will have numerous high-stake challenges. Will higher passing and graduation rates attest to the impact of an institution on student learning and post-graduation success? I suppose that depends on who answers.
One of the challenges liberal arts institutions face is defining liberal arts for prospective students and their parents. Although the curriculum and its benefits seem obvious to faculty and administrators, it can be a tough sell from time to time. This is especially true today amidst growing skepticism about the value of higher education and a strong desire for job-specific training. The term liberal arts has complicated usage because it is defined differently, depending on the context. Over the years I’ve begun framing the concept of liberal arts from five perspectives.
1. The Traditional Subjects. The Trivium (Logic, Rhetoric, Grammar) and Quadrivium (Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, and Astronomy) of the Middle Ages–which you can see displayed in the banner of this website. These seven areas defined the structure of higher education in Medieval Europe and are an important model for the general education curricula found in primary and secondary schools as well as the core requirements of most four-year, bachelor of arts degree programs.
2. General Education Requirements. Most college and university undergraduate degree programs now require a standard set of courses or subject requirements outside of the major area. Depending on the type of institution (private liberal arts college, public university, etc.) and the type of degree (bachelor of science, bachelor of arts, etc.) the number of courses and proficiencies may vary. The most common requirement areas include composition, speech, literature, natural sciences, social sciences, fine arts, foreign language, intercultural, quantitative, and physical education. This list is simplified, since the requirements could have slightly different names, definitions, or sub fields that satisfy them. Most students equate liberal arts to this framework, because it is clearly itemized for them on degree requirement checklists. The challenge is showing students that these course requirements are established to ensure the breadth of knowledge, experience, and exposure rooted in a liberal arts education.
3. High Impact Experiences. Some components of the curriculum are not defined by a particular course or field of study, but rather an experience that should dramatically impact the student and significantly further their development and preparation for life after graduation. Some of these experiences include internships, capstone projects, service learning, comprehensive exams, a thesis, and study abroad, although other types of experiences could also be added to this common list. Sometimes these components are specific requirements to be filled and other times they are unique opportunities the institution provides for students that may set the institution apart from competitors.
4. Skills for Successful Careers. In other contexts the liberal arts are defined by a set of skills a student will develop that will help them thrive in the workforce, no matter their major (i.e., transferable). The courses and experiences of the liberal arts education are designed to challenge students in these areas so they are prepared to compete in the global economy. These skills include oral and written communication, cross-cultural sensitivity and awareness, research and information literacy, analytical thinking, creativity, synthesis, problem solving, and critical thinking, among others. Often these are skills itemized on job descriptions. Showing students how courses engage in skill development and that these skills are what employers desire will help broaden the discussion of the benefits of a liberal arts education.
5. Higher Purpose. The final framework for defining the liberal arts serves the institution’s higher purpose, usually expressed in the mission statement. I like to think of this list as desirable ways of describing alumni, no matter what direction they take post graduation. This list would include moral character, leadership, civic engagement, global citizenship, life long learning, among other things. Although the curriculum cannot define attributes as an outcome of specific courses and experiences, the nature of liberal arts study should ideally cultivate these traits in students.
It’s difficult to package the nature of the liberal arts into a brief sound bite or slogan. As institutions continue to adapt to changing public attitudes toward higher education, it will be important to remember the contexts in which the term “liberal arts” appears. One can define the liberal arts from a variety of angles. When explaining the value of a liberal arts education, it will be important to be aware of how the term is used and received in conversation.
Ahmed Afzaal’s recent piece in The Chronicle, “Grading and its Discontents,” touches on a dynamic hot topic in higher education, student obsession with “the grade.” Afzaal presents several key arguments aimed at distinguishing performance grades from actual learning. He rightfully illustrates how peers, parents, and pre-college schooling have shaped this grade-oriented mentality, but we ought to also consider how the environment of higher education enables it. Too often classrooms reinforce the goals of the individual; students are held to individual expectations and assessed on individual performance. Certainly group activities may temporarily expand responsibility beyond the student to multiple members of class, but this is rarely tied to the overall purpose of the course. What is lacking is a sense of camaraderie.
Imagine a major league baseball team. Individual players are assessed in a variety of statistical categories: earned run average, home runs, on base percentage, innings pitched, etc. These statistics serve individual player goals for free agency, salary arbitration, and promotion from the minors to the majors. But what happens when a team is making a run for the playoffs? The only statistic that matters is team wins. All of a sudden the individual goals are not the driving force of the players. Clenching a wild card spot, knocking off a division rival team, and winning the Pennant and World Series are now the aspiration for all members of the team, something special and uniquely shared within the group. There is camaraderie in this pursuit and it brings out the best in players.
Imagine a non-profit organization’s devotion to a measure on an upcoming election ballot. The stakes are high. The amount of work required to have an edge is endless. There are no 40-hour work weeks. Late nights, creativity, teamwork, and resourcefulness are required. The members of this team develop camaraderie through the collective experience. The push leading up to the election resembles a semester course: the timeline may be limited but the outcomes will be lasting.
So how do we create this environment in the classroom? First we have to convince students that the stakes are much higher than grades. There are a number of ways to accomplish this: current events, service learning, community outreach, simulations, games, undergraduate research, etc. If students buy into the outcomes of these goals, then they will have a purpose in the class other than “the grade.” A second step is to show students that their semester in the class is a unique experience. When curricular courses are taught by professors the same way each time, there is nothing special about being in a particular section in a given semester. I’m not saying that professors have to start completely from scratch. Framing a course around an unique objective can help students bond and place their efforts into something far greater than their individual pursuits.
The dynamic series of events at UVa in June have come to represent a critical debate at the heart of higher education in the 21st century: progress vs. tradition. The Washington Post effectively summed this up in their characterizations of Dragas and Sullivan. In the coming months, many colleges and universities will likely reflect on the events in Charlottesville as they determine what type of institution they want to be. Beneath the concerns of finance, relevance, and reputation, it will be extremely important to remember who stands to gain or lose the most in these decisions: the students.
On one side of the discussion is the competitiveness and stability of the institution in an ever-changing, global marketplace. Students are commonly addressed by assessment, graduation, and job placement data in response to insecurities about declining government aid, rising student debt, skill competition with students in developing countries, and a sluggish job market. Streamlining the cost effectiveness of course delivery and updating the learning platforms for the millennial mindset may prove to be successful adaptations to these concerns. But what aspect of the college experience is compromised? I’m not sure if I know the answer to this, but I suspect it’s something intangible that sparks creativity and shapes character.
On the other side of the conversation is the priceless and timeless magic that has defined higher education for centuries. The environment that honors the free and open quest for knowledge, inspiration, and discovery and that celebrates the ideas of departments, students, and faculty, not what they generate in terms of dollar signs and academic market share. But a stubborn allegiance to traditions may compromise much for our students. Whereas the collegiate campus provides a supportive environment for learning and tolerance, our students will not always be there. If students are not prepared to take the first steps after graduation to build a future that supports life-long learning and meaningful engagement with their communities, tradition will need a significant make over.
The proper formula is still a mystery. But as these debates continue, students should drive the rhetoric.