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Opinion: Answering the value question in higher education


For this trend to yield fruit, leadership must find someone who can tell them how to design a customized, systematic approach to the direct measurement of student learning outcomes. Academic leads must get help to make sense out of incomprehensibly expressed standards to get outcomes that measure one thing at a time, such that observers will agree on what they are observing in student demonstrations of learning.

Only this can result in assessment instruments that measure what they say they do; in other words, only this will generate raw data that will be valid. Without validity the entire endeavor is a complete waste of time and money.

Leadership and faculty must then engage in another new behavior: Reframing how outcomes and assessment fit in day-to-day instruction on a campus. Faculty must discuss the ownership of meaningful outcomes. For those outcomes that reside in their discipline, where is the best place for faculty to collectively measure students over time in not just their discipline or program but also across disciplines? This demands mapping a coherent plan and matrix for assessing student skill, knowledge and dispositions as a result of their complete experience on campus over time.

The only cultural adjustment required of faculty is that they lose the course-centric view of teaching and find a new visual that has them as part of a team of experts who will challenge students in different contexts to show their progress on a shared set of well understood outcomes. No one should care how well a single instructor is teaching an outcome in one course. The issue is how well is the outcome addressed across the curriculum, across many courses, across the campus over time.

Put another way, schools of higher education must embrace the axiom that it really does take a whole village to raise a child.

To address value, schools must show how they have collectively and systematically taken responsibility for keeping track of student progress, and also how they have used valid data to drive adjustments. Right now, most students just know what grade they have received, not what they need to do to improve.

Sharing comments about student work in relation to revealed patterns on learning and discussing how to fix common misunderstandings is a collective, cultural act. It is the act that will transform higher education and will make the assessment trend turn into something useful.

Geoff Irvine is founder and CEO of Chalk & Wire.