Leadership & Governance

Looking to a New Tool to Prove a College's Value

Karen R. Lawrence, Sarah Lawrence College

May 07, 2014

Video and editing by Julia Schmalz


Sarah Lawrence College, which prides itself on its small classes and individualized attention to students, has adopted a new, homegrown tool to assess learning. In a recent conversation, its president, Karen R. Lawrence, explains how she expects the tool will help the college track students’ growth over time and prove that the institution is doing what it claims to be doing.


DAN BERRETT: I'm joined here today by Karen Lawrence, President of Sarah Lawrence College. Thank you very much for coming to The Chronicle today.

KAREN LAWRENCE: My pleasure.

DAN BERRETT: All right. So you have lately rolled out a new assessment tool. Can you tell us a little bit more about it?

KAREN LAWRENCE: Sure. Our faculty committee worked with the associate dean to really try to develop a tool to measure what we say we do. So to provide a demonstration of the value that we think we provide our students and to help, really, faculty to chart and students to chart the progress of each individual student. The tool builds on a culture of evaluation at Sarah Lawrence, which minimizes the importance of grades-- although we give them because the world gives them-- but focuses on in-depth narrative evaluations for each student in each course. This would be an additional tool that the faculty in the course would-- an assessment that the faculty would provide on top of the other kinds of evaluations.

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DAN BERRETT: And how is it different from a grade? I gather it's generalizable in some way. Right? It looks at six core areas?

KAREN LAWRENCE: It's so there are six critical abilities that grew out of an extended discussion, as you can imagine, among the faculty involved on what we thought were abilities that were provided across disciplines according to the rather unique pedagogy at Sarah Lawrence, which is 90% seminars. Each seminar has not only a roundtable at which there's discussion, which liberal arts colleges often do, but an independent project called "Conference Work" for each student in each seminar.

So the faculty are used to evaluating students through a narrative evaluation that is different from a grade. The critical abilities are-- I can tell you. Would you like to know what they are? To think analytically, to communicate effectively in writing, to exchange ideas effectively orally, to bring innovation to your work, to think independently, and to take and act on criticism. And these were abilities-- not skills necessarily, not content-- but abilities that we feel are pretty much cultivated and developed by the students in almost every course.

So it's not a grade. It's a developmental scale. What's different about this is that it helps us track longitudinally each student. So it's in each course, and the faculty member would go to the computer. And when they upload the narrative evaluation and give the grade, they can think in these categories developmentally. So it's from not-yet-developed to excellent and gradations in between. It's an additional tool, but it allows us to track a little bit better the progress of students.

And use would be for the students and faculty. So we have a faculty advisor-- called a "don"-- who is with the student for all four years and is really an advisor intellectually, academically, and goes over a program with the student. So it's really for the don and the student. It will also help us institutionally to figure out if we're doing what we say we think we're doing.

DAN BERRETT: And how does the-- it sounds a little bit like it's a rubric in a way where it's-- you've got different areas divided into different gradations, you know, one through four or what have you. Except is the difference that it's--

KAREN LAWRENCE: It's a metric that's developmental. The only time-- and it doesn't pit students against each other. So it's not grading on a curve. It's not really a grade. In order to aggregate it, we would need to combine it and assign it some value, but its purpose is not that.

It's not a grade. And it would be for discussion between the don and the student or the faculty member and the student to really talk about progress. So if a student appeared not to be progressing and writing-- which is something we pride ourselves - it's part of our reputation - we pride ourselves on doing. We do it across disciplines. The scientists write, the mathematicians write at Sarah Lawrence.

But we've got to prove what we say we do, and I think parents and students deserve to ask questions about value. And I think it's incumbent on us to try to develop nuanced instruments for showing that value proposition. So that's what we're trying to do.

DAN BERRETT: What have you learned as an institution thus far?

KAREN LAWRENCE: It's still a work in progress. We're in the second semester. We're rolling it out relatively slowly to make sure that it does what we want. So for example, we wanted to look at if - we had an "A" category. So if many faculty felt that some area was not applicable, we would want to modify that.

What we found so far is that the students, the evaluations proceed monotonically-- meaning that, the scores for each subsequent grade are on the developmental scale, they're higher than for first years, let's say. But this is two semesters of data, so we really need to look at it. We're beta testing it with the students with their dons That rollout will really be next fall.

And it is a work in progress. We might add something if we thought that that was useful. It's really a way of stepping up for ourselves internally. So it's organic to what we do. And by that, I mean that it's connected to the teaching and learning. It's not a test that somebody comes in. It's not a national multiple choice or even something graded by computers. So we wanted to put our instrument where our mouth is and actually do this, and and then see if it's a useful model for the national conversation about value, at least for our peers in liberal arts colleges.

DAN BERRETT: You know, small liberal arts colleges-- like Sarah Lawrence, and Sarah Lawrence, in particular-- do have to make a value argument.


DAN BERRETT: And Sarah Lawrence, in some senses, is a target because it is an expensive college. And according to our last survey, it was the most expensive by sticker price at over $60,000.

KAREN LAWRENCE: Yes. There are now many colleges joining us there, but absolutely.

DAN BERRETT: So tell me a little bit about the pressure for accountability that this brings to bear on you and how something like this can and maybe can't answer those questions?

KAREN LAWRENCE: Yeah. We need to be prepared to talk about cost and value. We think we have a very, very strong case for showing the value of Sarah Lawrence. We're mindful of cost, but this is really about value proposition.

And often, it's easy to critique the rather flat-footed measurements suggested or available. Again, one size fits all. We're not an institution that particularly believes in "one size fits all." Our educational philosophy is about individual students and how they learn. So we use this as a tool to correct what the college is doing, if we find that we're falling down in an area. This is not just about measuring students. It's for faculty to see whether they are helping to develop these qualities in the students.

So I think it's very much a part of accountability. And we have to be willing-- and our faculty are-- they-- from wondering whether assessment-- which is usually not a word embraced by faculty, and I understand that because it's often flat-footed in the way that it's done. But our faculty are, I think, embracing this and have developed. Because it is about accountability, and it's about learning how we do what we do better.

DAN BERRETT: Is there an example of a change that you've made as a result of the data you've gotten?

KAREN LAWRENCE: The curriculum committee-- so for this to work, it also has to feed into standing committees at the college or else it is not as effective. So there have been discussions on curriculum committee about writing, for example, and making sure that we analyze whether that writing component really does occur across the curriculum or if we're not getting that feedback that it does. Is that because it's in an arts workshop where other kinds of expression is occurring?

So it's affected us in the tools that we have to look at areas of our academics, like curriculum as well as student work. So far in two semesters, we've just modified parts of the rubric. Then, we'll see what we learn from it when we do it on a more full scale.

DAN BERRETT: Right. Right. Now, what sorts of lessons do you think your experience and this tool would give to other institutions? You've got a smaller student body and more instructional staff than, I think, a lot of institutions would have. What here is applicable?

KAREN LAWRENCE: I think first in thinking about value, in moving on a scale of competencies to abilities, moving a little bit away from a skills-based idea of ticking off expertise, toward the kind of value that liberal arts colleges-- and Sarah Lawrence, in particular-- are most interested in creating. And I think this is not just a kind of internal discussion or a private college discussion. This is what business leaders are asking for.

In the news, you know, nationally, the federal government are asking for abilities that will allow graduates to be able, not only to get jobs when they leave college, but 40 and 50 years down the pipe. I mean, so it shifts the value as it also shifts the national discussion away from what your salary is the year you graduate, which is part of the rubric in the recent ratings plan from President Obama.

And I hasten to say some of what is being evaluated is important-- like graduation rates and retention-- but the salary, but monetizing value in that way I think is destructive, not only for liberal arts colleges, but for the students who are graduating, who are going to need to be cognitively flexible and adaptable, and even innovative and work in groups in ways that we don't even understand yet. You know, more than 50% of the jobs available in five years haven't even been invented. So how do you prepare students? Part of the value, I think, is helping to shift the conversation, not denying the importance of jobs. We need to recognize we're preparing students to enter the world of work and service, but not monetizing it so that he or she who has the highest salary two years out is somehow the winner or valued more. That's a piece of social engineering that I think is kind of destructive.

Are there benefits? I think it's a way of a faculty agreeing on what they're looking for. It might not be the same for every college. It probably wouldn't be. But the ease with which our faculty can use it to kind of interpolate between the narrative evaluation and the grade is proving a very promising kind of tool for them so that there's a kind of agreement about what you're looking for. And that's useful, I think.

DAN BERRETT: Well, great. Well, thank you very much for joining us today.


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.