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Maureen Mancuso is provost
and vice-president, academic,
at the University of Guelph
and a 3M National Teaching
Fellow. Her column appears
in every second issue.
Accounting for learning
We need to measure what
by Maureen Mancuso
my introductory column, I hinted
at the ever-brewing, sometimes boiling conflict between unconstrained
academic freedom and the increasing
demands for accountability and proof
of “return on investment” in higher education.
In some ways we are victims of our own success:
as academics we know that education is as much
about the journey as the destination, but there’s
no escaping the fact that many of the people
involved value that destination pretty highly.
Education is an excellent investment – for students,
communities and governments – but as with any
program that pays off in social and intellectual
as well as mere monetary capital, it can be challenging to demonstrate that fact convincingly.
What annoys many academics, including me,
about the baldly economic description of education as an “investment” is that modelling teachers
as producers and students as consumers not only
demeans both parties to the relationship but also
reduces learning to a purely passive activity:
mere absorption of knowledge, pre-digested and
individually wrapped. The problem is that budgets
are budgets, and if all we can provide are fiscal
metrics, there will always be a tendency to use a
model that conforms to what can be measured.
Figures showing the enhanced career prospects
of graduates are compelling, but they measure
something (usually income) that is only distantly
connected to the actual educational experience,
and they are generational metrics. Students, parents and especially governments don’t want to
wait until a cohort retires to decide whether its
youthful promise was wasted or amplified.
Nor should we. “Continuous improvement”
is one of those weaselly phrases that echoes
around admin buildings, but it also describes
good pedagogy and indeed all academic pursuits.
What are we, as educators, other than a culture
dedicated to experimenting, testing, questioning,
challenging, assessing, tweaking and improving
our understanding and our approach to learning?
Even if you recoil at the idea of a transactional
metaphor overtaking the idealistic pursuit of
knowledge, you still care whether you are in fact
ennobling young minds, or just helping them kill
their time, like a less histrionic form of reality TV
playing in the background while they update their
Facebook pages. But how can anyone be sure this
is happening if what we (as a system) count is just
inputs – like the number of hours per week spent
in class (a metric close in spirit to TV ratings) or
opaque summaries like grades and marks? How
can students communicate their achievements
to future instructors expecting evidence of requisite knowledge or to employers demanding
The answer to “what did this student learn?”
is not “ 1. 5 credit hours” or “a B+”; the registrar’s
office may consider those metrics significant, but
few outside the academy will be able to decipher
them. The answer is not a score on a standardized
test, which measures test-taking skill and test
preparation above all else. The answer should
be measurable in terms of some specific kind of
enhanced skills or mastery.
For example, transcript designations that
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identify courses which are particularly writing-or research- or numeracy-intensive offer a more
transparent view of just what a student gained
by achieving a good mark. Methods like rubrics,
portfolios, analytics and curriculum maps identify tangible learning outcomes, and they give
students, employers and governments a more
evidentiary and transparent basis on which to
assess the value of a university degree – a basis
that does not encourage the transactional fallacy.
We all want students’ learning experiences
to be highly “productive.” We want that investment
of time, effort, intellectual wattage and, yes, money
to yield a good return, because it’s through just
that sort of productivity enhancement in our
own lives that we came to our calling as teachers.
Outcomes-based learning assessment practices
simply externalize the multidimensional evalu-
ation we already do as an essential part of teaching.
They are, in a way, just a higher-level application
of some familiar exhortations: “show your work”
and “discuss, with specific examples.”
Professors and governments may not share all
the same motivations, but they agree on the goal
of enhancing student learning. It’s just that with-
out documented reason to believe that graduates
have actually expanded their critical faculties in
specific ways, we must demand stakeholders to
take it on faith. And faith isn't enough to justify the
investment we hope to see in the system. With
learning outcomes assessment, we can give those
stakeholders a way to satisfy their need for accoun-
tability while still acknowledging the pedagogical
values we respect and want to preserve.