The Difficulty of Measuring College Learning Gains | National Review

The Fundamental Issue of Our Time | National Review


Colleges want us to think that their students amass a great deal of knowledge as a result of their courses. Some do, but many coast along, enjoying the “beer and circus” of campus life (as Murray Sperber puts it), graduating with little or no intellectual gain. How can we separate the wheat from the chaff?

One idea is for schools to administer an exam to assess a student’s competency. Will that work, though? In today’s Martin Center article, Richard Phelps argues that the concept is fraught with difficulty.

He writes that, “General cognitive ability, however, doesn’t change much in college. Though politically incorrect to even mention the fact, some have more to begin with through the luck of their genetic configuration. Some nurture it better than others by habit (e.g., with “thinking” activities rather than television watching, keeping physically fit). Moreover, general cognitive ability can be affected as much by activity outside the classroom as inside it.”

Phelps notes that there are many content-area exams that schools (or prospective employers) can administer to find out how much or little a student knows. Maybe the status quo isn’t so deficient after all. Also, there are a number of different college rankings that purport to measure student success. Maybe they help to steer students toward better institutions.

Phelps concludes, “With so many performance measures and so many college rankings, will every college find itself ranked high in something? No. Some will not rank highly on any measure, and those may be the colleges to avoid.”

George Leef is the the director of editorial content at the James G. Martin Center for Academic Renewal.





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Tony Beasley
Tony Beasley writes for the Local News, US and the World Section of ANH.