Focus on Learning: the Essential Change of Perspective

September 12, 2010

Thursday evening and all day Friday I spent at a meeting of the national advisory board for NILOA, the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.  It’s an impressive assemblage of higher education leaders (you can see its members here) who help steer NILOA, which was formed two years ago to assist “institutions and others in discovering and adopting promising practices in the assessment of college student learning outcomes.”

This was a meeting largely devoted to reviewing the first wave of NILOA work, and considering what makes sense to do next.  NILOA means to make the question of whether and what students are learning more central to improving institutions of higher eduaction.

As obvious as this idea may seem, regular assessment of student learning has not been a major concern of those who work in higher education.  But wait!! faculty members will say in utter dismay if they hear me say this.  “We assess student learning all the time in the grading we do on student examinations and papers.”  True.  But how good are those assessments?  How do we know how good they are?  Does one professor’s grading match another’s at the same institution?  at another?  And when a student graduates from college, what do we know comprehensively about what students have learned?  What do we know about the skills and capabilities they have acquired?

A major premise of the NILOA board discussion this week was that we now know how to carry through very good assessments of student learning.  We have the tools, the strategies, the understandings to do this.  The question is how to bring about the broad adoption of these tools, strategies and understandings across higher education.

One obstacle, we agreed, is that some colleges and universities lack the resources they need to fully adopt good assessment methods.  We need to provide assistance to them.  A much, much bigger obstacle, we all agreed, is the resistance of too many in the professoriate to these approaches.  That’s what we spent most of the day discussing:  that resistance and the possible ways of overcoming it.

Essential to that, we agreed, was a fundamental change of perspective, both simple and profound.  Most faculty members emerge from graduate school thinking of themselves as being responsible for a body of knowledge that they will spend their professional lives developing further through research and disseminating through teaching.  Their focus is on what they do.  If students fail to learn it, that’s not their responsibility.

Some faculty, however, come to realize that their essential task is to help students learn.  They realize that their basic responsibility is not to a body of knowledge but to their students’ learning.  And once they have made that shift in perspective, knowing more and better about what students are learning becomes a vital preoccupation.  Faculty members who have made that shift in perspective design their courses differently to focus on specific learning objectives or outcomes, not on pools of knowledge to be covered or conveyed.  And with that shift, faculty members will look for ways of assessing whether those learning outcomes have been achieved, for most students most of the time.

Once that shift in perspective comes about, assessment of learning makes much more sense.  But that shift in perspectives requires a huge shift in commitment among the professoriate: away from focusing primarily on knowledge to focusing primarily on learning.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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