November 2, 2009
Tagged: President Emeritus

Student Learning Outcomes

Essays and Opinion Pieces

By President Robert A. Scott

It seems that, whenever the economy sours and college graduates have trouble finding jobs, and jobs that don’t really require a college education raise entry standards, cynics emerge saying that four years in college provide little value-added benefit. Some even argue that putting the college-bound in a closet instead of a classroom, and comparing their skills and abilities after four years with the non-college-bound, would show that the college-bound were still better prepared for work. 

These are extreme statements, of course, and even those cynics want their children to have the benefit of a college education.  

But what are the benefits? How do we know they exist? How do we measure the impact of the university as distinct from four years of reading, watching, and discussing the news?

These are serious questions, and higher education institutions have not done as well as they should in answering them in ways that give confidence to others. There are still too many examples of education that is not grounded in the knowledge, skills, abilities, and values that twenty-first century students need. Employers and others want graduates who think both critically and globally, and communicate ideas clearly.

In some cases, new faculty, with freshly earned doctoral degrees, are put in front of students without being prepared either to teach or to set standards that meet the institution’s understanding of excellence. It is an unfortunate truth that university professors represent the rare profession in which there is no required, supervised apprenticeship before entering a room to practice one’s chosen field. All others, architects, attorneys, clergy, dentists, engineers, physicians, school teachers, etc. are required to have such an experience before being licensed to practice. 

Most colleges and universities take seriously the need to assess a faculty candidate’s ability to teach, and orient new faculty, both full-time and part-time, to standards and expectations. Many institutions require annual reviews of all faculty and provide extensive services through the centers for professional development. 

Nevertheless, colleges are criticized for admitting students who are not prepared for the rigors of the curriculum. Author Martin Nemko says, “Students’ lives are at stake and colleges, that preach ethics throughout their curriculum, should not be hypocritical and admit students merely to meet enrollment targets.” 

Nemko also criticizes colleges and Congress for boosting college-going rates at a time when “employers are accelerating their offshoring, part-timing, and temping as many white college jobs as possible, … resulting in ever more un- and underemployed B.A.’s” in what he considers soft fields without ready connections to employment.

While these are legitimate concerns, Nemko and others paint with too broad a brush, and ignore the vigilant work of regional accrediting bodies in insisting on and assessing how colleges and universities establish key learning outcomes; design courses, programs, and experiences to provide opportunities for students to study successfully; assess whether students are learning what is intended; and monitor retention and graduation rates, thus evaluating the degree of “fit” between a college’s mission, the students admitted, and the learning goals expressed. 

For these reasons and more, institutional leaders and faculty know that the starting point for assessment is the campus mission statement. This sets forth not only lofty aims, but also specific learning goals. Then, they measure what is done and assess the gap between expectations and results by a variety of means, including the evaluation of student work, local and national surveying of students and faculty, and the use of external evaluators. They view the curriculum and extra-curriculum as a continuum. They attempt to distinguish between classroom and general learning, and know this is difficult. They acknowledge that some students come with knowledge and skills that are more advanced than others and this adds to the complication.

Institutions take seriously the need to assess learning. They are explicit in their goals and intentional in their behavior, knowing that the institution teaches through its activities as well as through the faculty it hires and nurtures, and that it is being measured by the percentage of students who graduate.

We are confident that students benefit from the Adelphi education and experience. I know because I ask them when they are here and after they graduate. I ask them what works well and what should be fixed, and know that my colleague presidents do as well. In these ways, we know what goals we should continue to nurture, and what strategies for student learning may need enhancement, no matter the condition of the economy.


Tagged: President Emeritus