The right way to measure college learning

National standardized testing won't work.

How do we know what college students really learn? A commission on higher education headed by US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has raised the issue of whether national standardized tests, such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), can answer that question. Our research suggests they can't.

The University of Washington's Study of Undergraduate Learning (UW SOUL) and the book about the study, "Inside the Undergraduate Experience," provide evidence that national exams will not be able to measure college learning. What they show is that studies that track the same students over time, departmental assessment of learning in the major, and student self-assessment are better measures.

UW began its study in 1999 with 304 students. During the next four years, we investigated what undergraduates learned, where they learned it, and how we might improve their experience. We used interviews, focus groups, surveys, e-mail, and portfolios to track their learning.

A few details about the paths of two study participants illustrate what standardized testing would miss.

"Joe" came to UW having taken college courses in high school. He was questioning a future in aerospace engineering after a trip to a regional Shakespeare festival convinced him there were pleasures in life he had missed. In his first month at UW, he wrote: "I consider my time here ... my one big chance in life to really learn something. This is the main reasoning behind my wanting to come to this university and embrace a broader range of studies.... I am very uncertain of what I want to do with my life, but I think that my time here ... will help me grow into the person I want to be."

In the course of four years, Joe explored a number of fields, including astronomy, finally settling on anthropology and the comparative history of ideas as majors. He joined an archaeological dig; learned to write poetry; studied Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jack Kerouac, differential equations, and retaliatory violence; and tutored high school kids in math. He worked hard to pay his way through school. Joe wrote arguments for his anthropology major on the "Eve" model of human ancestry and on seasonal transhumance in the late Stone Age. After he graduated, Joe overcame his fear of travel and went to Japan and China where he learned Chinese and wrote beautiful e-mails about his life there.

"Sarah" entered UW with a love of science and a research background. When she arrived, she said: "I want to learn about life in the city, about science. I want to pick a field and become knowledgeable about it. I want to learn about the community, how it works.... I want to learn how to compromise, how to work together, how to be a better leader, how to ride the Metro bus system ... how it feels to work with a professor who is on the cutting edge of knowledge and is passionate about what he is doing. I want to become more passionate about things."

Between 1999 and 2003, Sarah chose a forest management major; joined the log-rolling team; and took courses in statistics, history, and political science. At the end of her sophomore year, feeling as though she "had no friends and no direction," Sarah transferred to a smaller public university. There she took courses in communication but soon felt that communication was not for her. She returned to UW to finish her forestry degree, which required her to analyze and critique a conflict in fire management and to develop a highly quantitative management plan for a natural resource area.

Of her "two turning points – the decision to leave UW and the decision to come back" – Sarah said, "This has given me a new belief in myself, to persevere, to make the best choice for myself even if it is the most difficult." Before graduation, she was thinking about her next steps – to keep her current job or apply to graduate school.

How should we measure what Joe and Sarah learned in college?

Their accounts and samples of their work in critical thinking, writing, and quantitative reasoning showed learning gains in all areas. But what they learned was filtered through the lens of each student's major. A standardized test, such as the CLA, with its focus on generic skills and knowledge, could not detect the specialized information and skills each student had worked hard to master. Perhaps more important, both students showed profound growth in self-awareness and acceptance. Standardized tests would ignore these achievements.

We are using the findings of UW SOUL to work with UW departments on their plans for assessing students' learning. Meanwhile, studies of college students over time can track complex learning that is connected to, but not necessarily part of, academic classrooms. Together, these approaches can generate important information about how students are transformed by college and how colleges can improve the learning experiences they offer.

Catherine Hoffman Beyer is a research scientist and director of the UW SOUL. She is coauthor of "Inside the Undergraduate Experience."

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