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Measuring what college students actually learn

A new initiative calls on colleges and universities to ask and answer the question, “Are students learning?” at their institutions.

Image of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
Author: Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 272 pages

Jeremy Hobson: In his speech tonight, President Obama is also expected to announce ideas to make college more affordable. Currently, less than 40 percent of American adults have a college degree. But as the price keeps going up, more people are questioning the value of a degree.

From the Marketplace education desk at WYPR in Baltimore, Amy Scott reports.


Amy Scott: Last year, two sociologists published a book that got a lot of attention on campus. "Academically Adrift" followed a group of college students to find out what they learned. After four years of college, more than a third of them showed no significant improvement on a test of critical thinking and reasoning.

It's the sort of thing employers have been complaining about for years.

Carol Geary Schneider: Overwhelmingly, employers are telling us we need to do better.

Carol Geary Schneider is president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Schneider: Employers are telling us we're not doing a good enough job on critical thinking, communication skills, problem-solving skills. That we need to get students out there in the real world actually applying their knowledge to real problems.

Schneider is part of a new effort to measure and improve what college students learn.

Today, a group called the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability is putting out a set of guidelines for schools. They recommend colleges set goals for what students should know when they graduate, and then measure and report the results. David Paris is executive director of the alliance.

David Paris: We can produce more degrees, but those degrees won't be meaningful. They won't serve the students and they won't serve our society unless they really represent a high level of achievement.

He says schools could use a number of measures: standardized tests like the Collegiate Learning Assessment, retention and graduation rates, as well as portfolios of student work.

Jack Rossman is professor emeritus of psychology at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn. He says in the past, faculty have resisted efforts to standardize student learning. He says the key is to get them on board early.

Jack Rossman: Those colleges and universities that have had good success in developing reasonable measures of student learning have had faculty engaged in the process.

Professors may have little choice. The alliance behind the new guidelines says groups representing more than 3,000 colleges and universities have signed on.

I'm Amy Scott for Marketplace.

About the author

Amy Scott is Marketplace’s education correspondent covering the K-12 and higher education beats, as well as general business and economic stories.
Image of Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses
Author: Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa
Publisher: University Of Chicago Press (2011)
Binding: Hardcover, 272 pages
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Another issue is the cheating. I graduated from the University of Washington in 2004 and am proud to say I actually "earned" my degree. A tragic thing I noticed was all these "idiots," particularly ones from Eritrea graduating with engineering and Nursing degrees while basically cheating their whole way through. I knew one guy at my job, who I never thought it would be possible for him to get into the school of Mechanical Engineering , let alone graduate, who did both; however, I observed him one time copying a paper at work and I asked him about it. He said: "people I know we pass these papers around all the time." After I graduated, I realized that if your from a 3rd World Country and your high school was basically like my elementary school, it would make sense that you would have to cheat to get a lot of these technical degrees, even if just to meet the core requirements. The Degrees have been devalued by the internet and often for what minimally passes as "critical thinking."

Why would standardized testing help improve critical thinking? Wouldn't it have the opposite effect? The more we "learn for tests" the less real learning we are going to get. Maybe we should adopt more critical thinking in assessing the problem with our higher education system.

I think this article is off the mark. You talk about standardized testing and that faculty have been opposed to this. What faculty are you talking to? I think that if you want to improve student outcomes you need to look at economics- specifically what is going on with faculty salaries and student loads.
I am currently an unemployed PhD. I taught for over 10 years but was never able to land a permanent job. Instead, I held a series of 1 year positions, which are living hell. Tenure track and tenured jobs are drying up and they are being replaced with 1 year positions. In a 1 year position the average professor, holding a PhD, usually teaches twice as much as a tenured professor, for half the price. Thus, universites are going to this. In the early 90's at Northern Arizona University there were no classes taught by temporary faculty. The last time I worked there (2008) there were NO lower level classes taught by tenured faculty, instead, all the freshman courses were taught by professors holding one year contracts. Let me tell you about my last one year contract (2008). I had to teach 4 classes a semester, and I had over 300 students in these classes. I had the lowest salary in the department, and a job that offered limited benefits (intentionalloy, to save money). Thus, I was teaching at least twice as much as the "regular" (aka tenured or tenure track faculty) and I received half of the salary. One year I replaced TWO professors (each prof. taught 4 classes a year and received over 50K a year- I taught 8 classes a year for a salary of 32K). Do the math. As a one year non tenured prof teaching over 300 students a semester, it is extremely difficulty to actually teach. You're lucky if you can just manage all the administrative crap (attendance rosters, mid term grading). Standardized testing is NOT the issue. I am an excellent teacher and I could do a really great job teaching critical thinking, and I do when my classes have less than 40 students. However, the trend, due to financial demands, is for administrators to put more students in a class, with less resources. I got reprimanded for handing my students a paper syllabus (which was the only way I could guarantee they got a copy) on the first day of class- I blew my entire semester copy budget just making copies for one class. I was supposed to put the syllabus online (I did) and the students are supposed to pay money to get it printed themselves. However, when you do this, many students either do not have a computer, don't have the money to print the thing out, or don't bother to look online. Again, economics is influencing teaching strategies. How am I going to teach critical thinking when I can't even ensure that all students are getting class materials? The most "successful" teacher in this dept. was a man who held a MA (NOT a PhD) and couldn't write a proper sentence. He said he just got a "feeling" about students and that he could tell if a student was an "A" student, so he didn't have to read the papers or homework. This guy also held a temporary 1 year position. The students didn't like him because they weren't learning but they did like their easy "A"s. All his tests were "standardized" and his students basically learned how to fill out forms. No critical thinking there.
I had to quit because it was an impossible task- you can't teach critical thinking- or much of ANYTHING- when you have 300 students a semester and no administrative support to go the extra mile, and you're not even making enough money yourself to pay your own bills. At one presitigous University my annual salary (as a 1 year temporary) was less than the tuition a student had to pay for one year to attend the university.
Anyway- I just think you need to analyze the relationship of the university economic strategies. The poor performance of college students is directly related to the lack of financial support for faculty and increased class sizes. As the universities feel the financial squeeze they tend to reduce costs by 1) replace tenured professors with 1 year contract professors; 2) increase the number of classes all professors teach, but especially the temporaries (when they burn out they just get a new one); 3) increase the numbers of students in each class; and 4) decrease the "freebies" for students (copying, printing, computer use). All these strategies together mean the professor has less resources and more students. When you add things like mandatory standardized testing, you simply make more work for the already maxxed out professors.
Seriously, look at the money. Look at who is teaching the classes. Of course in a grad class with 10 students you can teach crticial thinking. How do you do it in a freshman course with over 100 students in the class?

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