By Dr. Laura Palmer Noone, CEO University of the Potomac
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
From “Alice in Wonderland” by Lewis Carroll
For most of my professional life, I have lived under the motto of “if it moves, measure it.” For it is in this way that we know we are making progress. Those of us in higher education have been hearing about the importance of assessment of learning for some time. When I attend academic conferences, there is always an informational program on best practices in assessment. Yet, I universally hear, “there are things that can’t be measured.” That is probably true, but that is no excuse for not measuring the things that can be measured.
Every accreditor has a focus on assessment and the reason is simple. For hundreds of years of higher education, we relied on the input side of things to gauge the effectiveness of education – do you have enough volumes in the library, enough tenured faculty, high enough SAT scores for your entering students. These are certainly indicators of something, but to my way of thinking they aren’t indicators of whether there is learning going on in the classroom. To determine that, you must decide what skills and knowledge enter the class and what skills and knowledge are gained as a result. (After all, institutions like Harvard don’t have to add too much value – they start with the brightest and the best and merely need to make sure they don’t mess it up over four years!)
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The “gain” is also often the subject of much debate. I once had an extended conversation with an accreditation reviewer about whether my college could attribute the student’s learning exclusively to what went on in the classroom. The answer is of course ‘no’, because I cannot isolate out learning that comes from other experiences such as jobs, reading outside journals or listening to world news. But on the other hand, I don’t care WHERE the learning occurred as much as that it DID occur. I don’t view my job as leading the proverbial horse to water – my job is to make the horse thirsty. If we can make the student hunger for knowledge and become a devoted lifelong learner, then we have been a success. What individual facts they recall isn’t nearly as important as teaching a student to think critically, understand where to go to get information and have those basic skills that will support their lifelong learning.
So Alice, the destination does matter because that is the only way we will know if we are getting there. So take out your rulers and let’s start measuring!