9/25/2015 Faculty Members See Promise in Unified Way to Measure Student Learning ­ Teaching ­ The Chronicle of Higher Education

Faculty Members See Promise in Unified Way to Measure Student Learning ­ Teaching ­ The Chronicle of Higher Education
September 25, 2015
Faculty Members See Promise in Unified
Way to Measure Student Learning
By Dan Berrett
A new study that examined thousands of examples of student work
in nine states may give professors, administrators, policy makers,
and the public better tools to systematically understand what
students are actually learning in college.
At least that’s what the supporters hope of the research effort, the
results of which were released on Thursday.
"Proof of concept is what it is," said Julie M. Carnahan, a vice
president at the State Higher Education Executive Officers, an
association that led the project, called the Multi-State
Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment, with
the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "We have
proved that this is an alternative to standardized tests."
That alternative is a set of rubrics, or grids, that stake out common
standards for faculty members to use to evaluate student
assignments. The project seeks to unify two ideals: preserving
professorial authority over the assigning and grading of student
work, and tying such work to norms that can be judged externally
and consistently across courses, institutions, and states.
The project began in response to two concerns that have
preoccupied leaders of state systems of higher education in recent
years, Ms. Carnahan said. Employers and policy makers have
complained that newly hired college graduates often lack the
problem-solving skills needed in today’s workplace. At the same
time, many states have been basing university funding in part on a
set of performance measures, but those formulas have used
metrics of academic quality, like graduation rates, that faculty
members and college administrators have seen as too blunt and
Faculty Members See Promise in Unified Way to Measure Student Learning ­ Teaching ­ The Chronicle of Higher Education
too subject to external forces.
Some states use students’ scores on standardized tests, like the
Collegiate Learning Assessment and the ETS Proficiency Profile, in
their funding formulas. Those tests can provide external standards
that allow students and institutions to be compared according to
common criteria, but such assessments are unconnected to the
curriculum and their results are seen as flawed because students
have little incentive to try to score well on the tests. Course grades
are often authentic indicators of what students do, but they are
also subject to inflation, the whims of instructors, and the differing
norms of institutions.
The new project is seen as a potential breakthrough because it
uses as its raw material the actual work that students produce and
gives faculty members a common language and rating system to
evaluate that work.
Some 126 instructors at 59 institutions attended day-and-a-half
workshops to use faculty-developed rubrics to evaluate 7,215
examples of student work. Slightly more than a third of the
assignments were judged twice to establish consistency between
raters. The scorers didn’t judge work from their own institutions.
The colleges represented both two-year and four-year public
institutions in Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts,
Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah. The results,
however, were not statistically representative of the states, the
nation, or even each institution. Only those students who had
completed three-quarters of their credits toward a degree
Useful Feedback
Still, the results painted a picture of student achievement in both
broad strokes and minute detail. Students at four-year institutions
tended to score better — a three or four on a scale of zero to four
— compared with their peers at two-year colleges. A three or four
signals a "high" or "very high" level of achievement.
Scorers used rubrics in three skill areas, critical thinking,
quantitative literacy, and written communication, each of which
Faculty Members See Promise in Unified Way to Measure Student Learning ­ Teaching ­ The Chronicle of Higher Education
was dissected into four or five parts. Critical-thinking skills, which
professors and administrators often invoke but seldom define,
were divided and scored according to how well students explained
an issue or problem; how well they selected and used evidence;
how skillfully they examined the larger context influencing the
issue; and the quality of their thesis and conclusions.
Overall scores for critical thinking were lower than those for
quantitative reasoning and writing: Nearly a third of students at
four-year institutions scored a three or four over all in critical
thinking, while just 19 percent of students at two-year colleges did
But it was the subcategories within each broad skill area that were
often more revealing, several faculty members said. In quantitative
reasoning, for example, students could often perform calculations
but had difficulty describing the assumptions underpinning the
numbers in their work. An example of an assumption is from an
economics assignment: Students might be asked to imagine that
they are developing a city budget based on tax revenues. If the
economy plunges, what happens to taxes? Some faculty members
realized, after looking at the rubrics, that their assignments often
required students to do calculations but not to consider how those
calculations related to a broader context.
Such detailed feedback is particularly useful because it directly
relates to actual course work, said Jeanne P. Mullaney, assessment
coordinator for the Community College of Rhode Island. The
results can help faculty members change their assignments,
guided by a shared conception of a particular skill area. "The great
thing with rubrics," she said, "is the strengths and weaknesses are
readily apparent."
And when those strengths and weaknesses are shared across
institutions, states, and beyond, faculty members have been able
to exchange ideas about how to bolster areas in which many
students struggle, which has proved to be another benefit of the
But the rubrics have proved challenging for faculty members, too,
Faculty Members See Promise in Unified Way to Measure Student Learning ­ Teaching ­ The Chronicle of Higher Education
Terrel Rhodes, vice president of the Office of Quality, Curriculum,
and Assessment for the AACU, wrote in an email to The Chronicle.
"The biggest hurdle we find is for faculty to get out of the grading
mode based on getting the right answer to assessing the
underlying skill and ability."
Sticks and Carrots
Assessment is often used in two ways. Sometimes it’s a tool for
making judgments and holding people and institutions
accountable. At other times, results help those people and
institutions to improve.
The collaborative project is achieving the latter purpose, according
to several people involved with it, but Ms. Carnahan is concerned
that the former may happen, too. The project came about, in part,
in response to inadequate measures of educational quality in
state-funding decisions.
Does she worry that the project’s results will be tied to money and
performance funding? "That does give me some pause," Ms.
Carnahan said. "It’s not where we want to go with this at all."
The subcategories for each area — students’ ability to calculate or
to provide context for their numbers, for instance — are more
revealing than an overall score, she said. "The whole point of this
is to improve student learning."
Other risks might surface as well, said John D. Hathcoat, an
assistant professor at the Center for Assessment and Research
Studies at James Madison University, who has been watching the
project with interest. He applauded the effort, adding that the data
it produces will be extremely useful to researchers.
But Mr. Hathcoat also worried about the validity of the study’s
conclusions, and warned that using different assignments could
skew efforts to measure a common standard. Standardization has
drawn a backlash in education, he said, but it shouldn’t be
equated with multiple-choice tests.
Some standardization, he said, is good. It would be absurd, he
wrote in an email to The Chronicle, to compare two students when
Faculty Members See Promise in Unified Way to Measure Student Learning ­ Teaching ­ The Chronicle of Higher Education
one has been asked to write a mathematical proof and the other to
complete addition problems. "Why would we consider doing this
with institutions of higher education?" he asked.
But using different assignments as the basis of such a widespread
analysis had also made the exercises, and the larger design of
courses, better, said Christopher K. Cratsley. The results of the
analyses of student work at Fitchburg State University, where Mr.
Cratsley is director of assessment, suggested that students who
don’t major in the sciences are seldom asked to engage in
quantitative reasoning, while everyone is assigned work that
develops their critical-thinking and writing skills.
"We’ve seen that some assignments are sometimes not as good at
soliciting these skills as other assignments," he said. "That helps us
think about how we create a balance in the instruction we give."
Dan Berrett writes about teaching, learning, the curriculum, and
educational quality. Follow him on Twitter @danberrett, or write to
him at dan.berrett@chronicle.com.
The Chronicle of Higher Education
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hastac0708 • 8 hours ago
I find this a very serious way of addressing a problem that is far too often reduced
to an easy answer: either the easy answer of standardized, one­best­answer,
multiple choice testing or the easy answer of the kind of impressionistic, un­
examined (if also sometimes anguishing) A­/B+ that seems to be the default grade
in most of higher ed. At the very least, serious educators in many fields have
thought through some deep cognitive principles and are offering the rest of us an
opportunity to think what we mean by such opaque terms as "critical thinking." I
also like it that this will help give ballast to many of us who have been alarmed that
"vocational training" is being reduced to STEM, without helping students with the
array of important, deep, lasting problem solving skills needed to do STEM work
or any work well­­what we might call the humanities or social science and that, all
the research shows, are enduring skills especially for those eventually moving
into management positions later on. Our community colleges, especially, need
support for their offerings across a range of subjects and this complex grid does a
very good job of describing all the ways students need to be prepared to be
productive adults in the years after they graduate. I want to know more, and I'm
grateful to these faculty for the hard work they have put into this.
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• Reply • Share › ebrownst • 7 hours ago
Are these the VALUE rubrics? These are helpful rubrics but previously only face
validity studies have been performed.
Faculty Members See Promise in Unified Way to Measure Student Learning ­ Teaching ­ The Chronicle of Higher Education
validity studies have been performed.
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• Reply • Share › autocrat • 5 hours ago
I would have liked to have read comments from among the 126 teachers who
participated. Most of those cited in the article are administrators or professors who
engage in research on this topic. While this can be very useful, it does not
address the multiple demands on teachers' time. Too often I see an elaborate
research project or administrative "solution" designed to give someone else
"credit".without actually offering me a way to improve my students leaning.
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• Reply • Share › archman • 5 hours ago
What was the calculated mean extra time commitment required for professors
(both for startup and for maintenance by term) to fully integrate this program?
I ask this, because redirected or additional workload really *is* the central crux
determining the efficacy of most educational initiatives.
Any pedagogy can be the most amazing thing since sliced bread... on paper, or a
workshop, or a pilot program. Indeed, nearly all such educational initiatives claim
success in these areas. And yet, nearly all of them fall flat on their face when
confronted with the efficacy of scaling up.
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• Reply • Share › Meriel • 4 hours ago
Sounds like what they are measuring is the abilities of the students the institutions
are attracting, and it may have nothing at all to do with the learning that occurs at
the institution itself. You'd have to have longitudinal data on individuals to do the
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• Reply • Share › willynilly • 3 hours ago
I wonder how much of this introspective examination of actual student learning
and the creation of sets of rubrics to more accurately evaluate learning is ever
done or even thought of in our for­profit schools. There is a difference, a very
apparent difference, between legitimate higher education and the for­profit sector,
easy­ride, diploma mill schools.
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• Reply • Share › Richard Sherry > willynilly • 3 hours ago
Aactually, I saw examples from Phoenix in use perhaps 15 years ago, as
a way to work toward consistency across multi­section classes.
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• Reply • Share › wilkenslibrary • 35 minutes ago
Measuring student learning is, at best, a tricky business. In my 40+ years of
teaching, I've found that some students "get it" (whatever the "it" is that I'm
teaching at the moment) and others don't, at least not at that moment. Did the
ones who got it know it before they came to my class? Did the ones who didn't get
it right then get it later? Sometimes, I could see the light bulb go on in an individual
student's eyes weeks or even months after I'd presented something. I could tell you what kind of progress individual students were making over the
course of the semester, but judging a given class' performance strikes me as
being irrelevant. And drawing meaningful conclusions about a department, let
along an entire institution seems unlikely.
Betsy Smith/Retired Adjunct Professor of ESL/Cape Cod Community College
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Faculty Members See Promise in Unified Way to Measure Student Learning ­ Teaching ­ The Chronicle of Higher Education