Grades and Tests May Miss Measuring What Matters Most in Learning

As pressure mounts on colleges to document what their students learn, it remains tough to judge from outside the classroom how much knowledge they gain from their academic experience.

The traditional measure of learning is the course grade. Nothing says academic success more succinctly than an A.

But an A is subjective. Skeptics note that course requirements vary depending on the professor, the department, and the institution. Grades are often inflated.

Alternative methods to document learning have arisen in the form of standardized tests of critical thinking, which are meant to assess students’ ability to analyze material at a collegiate level. The strength of such tests is in their ability to provide results that can be compared across institutions.

But what if neither of those methods says much about the teaching, expectations, and assignments that students encounter in their courses?

According to this view, the nature of teaching and learning should be measured instead of relying solely on an outcome like a grade or a test. Students should be exposed to courses and assignments that require them to analyze information and apply it to new contexts, reflect on what they know, identify what they still need to learn, and sort through contradictory arguments.

Such opportunities are described in research literature as “deep approaches to learning.” They figure prominently in Thursday’s release of data from the National Survey of Student Engagement. While Nessie, as the survey is known, has long sought data on those practices, this year’s report replicated and extended the previous year’s findings, which showed that participation in deep approaches tends to relate to other forms of engagement, like taking part in first-year learning communities and research projects.

Deep approaches have been a subject of education research since at least the mid-1970s, after Ference Marton’s and Roger Säljö’s pioneering work in Sweden. Those educational psychologists analyzed how students responded to an academic article. They found that one group used “surface” approaches, like rote memorization, while the other took “deep” ones, in which students sought to understand the material’s purpose, meaning, and significance. <Read more. May require paid subscription.>

Via Dan Berrett, The Chronicle of Higher Ed.