Can We Improve Learning Outcomes?

I went into New York City Thursday afternoon to attend the last of a series of informal but quite interesting seminars on higher education that have been organized by Ellen Lagemann of Bard College and Andy Delbanco of Columbia University over the past eighteen months. The seminars have covered quite a range of topics, and have usually been led by one of the seminar members. Yesterday, however, Bob Connor of the Teagle Foundation led a discussion that asked “what have we learned about student learning?”

Bob is a distinguished classicist, the former head of the Council on the Humanities at Princeton University, and director emeritus of the National Humanities Center in North Carolina. When Bob retired from the center, he took on the presidency of Teagle, a small philanthropic foundation mainly interested in the improvement of undergraduate liberal education. He has emerged as one of the country’s most impressive small foundation presidents, focusing their grants especially on data-based assessment of student learning. He has leveraged a small endowment through shrewd requests for proposals for projects on student learning, which in turn have produced interesting reports that can be found on the Teagle Web site. Disclosure: I co-directed (with Jim Grossman and for the National History Center) a project on the role of the History major in undergraduate liberal education.

Bob’s contention yesterday was that much discussion of higher education in the past has revolved about the “who” question, especially who gets access to higher education, and who succeeds. Just as frequently, higher education discourse has concerned “what,” especially relating to the content of curricula. But Bob urged us to think about the “how” question — how can we achieve our goals for student learning? The issue here is one of how to go beyond subject matter content mastery (though that is not so easily accomplished), since most institutions now profess to aspire to achieve a broad range of liberal learning goals (along the lines of those espoused by the Association of American Colleges and Universities) that include citizenship and character development in addition to traditional content knowledge.

In recent years new assessment devices such as the NSSE and CLA have been created to attempt to measure this broader range of liberal-education goals. Bob is pleased that increasing numbers of institutions are using these new measures, but he challenged us to think harder about how actually to use such instruments formatively. He also shared with us some empirical results of learning-outcome measurements produced in response to Teagle grants that put into doubt whether institutions were in fact improving learning over the four year span of college. The data were pretty unclear and noisy, but they do make one wonder. Some members of the seminar questioned whether any significant learning was going on within the walls of the college, suggesting, for instance, that Twitter and other electronic stimuli might be more important than what goes on in the classroom. I would not go that far, but I think that Bob is right to ask us to determine empirically what (if anything) our students are learning, and thus to be able to reframe our learning strategies in the context of what we actually know about why they are succeeding — or not. The question is whether our institutions know how to respond to this challenge, assuming (as I do not) that they will accept it.

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