Higher education demands assessment and rewards

February 3, 2011 

Sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa find that higher education is "undemanding and unrewarding," as reported by Eric Gorski in a recent Olympian article headlined, "College contributes little to learning, book contends."

Arum and Roksa come to this conclusion based on a survey of only 2,300 undergraduates in which they find that about half showed “no significant improvement in the key measures of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing by the end of their sophomore year.”

The article, based on Arum and Roksa’s book “Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses,” begs the question, “what kind of intellectual growth are we seeing in college?”

Taken in aggregate, there is room for improvement in American higher education, a situation detailed in Andrew Hacker’s and Claudia Dreifus’s book “Higher Education?”

Hacker and Dreifus indicate that colleges are demonstrating less rigor, with more teaching by graduate students, and fewer encouragements for great educators.

While critiques apply, they do not apply equally. At Evergreen, we are leading change by focusing on students’ academic engagement, building student potential for independent learning, and solidly evaluating teaching based upon these effor ts.

Assessment of teaching and learning is extremely important to academic institutions, accrediting organizations and funders. While assessing intellectual growth is difficult, Evergreen is a leader within the higher education community, based in large part on our attention to regular assessment of teaching effectiveness.

Evergreen faculty, staff and administrators engage in regular assessment of teaching and learning through review of students’ narrative transcripts. We participate in national assessment efforts, notably the National Survey of Student Engagement, a 2010 survey of some 550,000 first-year students used by 595 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Evergreen uses NSSE to monitor progress and to compare our student engagement with national data.

In the most recent survey, Evergreen’s first-year students indicate that their coursework emphasized applying theories to practical problems, making judgments, synthesizing information, and integrating ideas.

Evergreen students’ critical reasoning skills have been noted as consistently above the national average. NSSE also indicated that over 65 percent of Evergreen students read more than ten texts their first year, compared to 38 percent nationally. Writing, speaking, developing values and ethics, working collaboratively and independently, contributing to community, and participating in a diverse society are all domains that Evergreen encourages.

Evergreen students translate theory into practice and graduate with critical faculties for making positive contributions in a rapidly changing world.

Locally, Saint Martins University and South Puget Sound Community College also assess the intellectual growth of their students. The skills, knowledge and abilities of our South Sound graduates are extremely important. A critical role of higher education is to prepare our students to meet educational and career goals as well as to become engaged citizens. Despite recent emphasis on degree production, particularly among the public colleges, institutions are cognizant of the need to maintain the quality of their degrees.

College degrees drive Washington’s economy. Washington residents with higher education enjoy more opportunities, higher median wages, and suffer less unemployment. Currently Washington ranks 36th in the nation in the production of bachelor’s degrees and the governor’s Higher Education Funding Task Force recommends that our public four-year institutions produce 6,000 more bachelor’s degrees annually to meet the needs of our economy.

Regardless of the accuracy of their conclusions, Arum and Roksa’s focus on learning matters. Innovative colleges are focused on teaching assessment and increasing knowledge among their expanding lists of graduates. Education is more than a degree conferred, it is an active, lifelong learning endeavor that we should measure and vigorously aim to encourage.

Ken Tabbutt is interim academic vice president and provost at The Evergreen State College.

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