Saturday, September 18, 2004

Designing educational "outcomes"

Over the last couple of decades, bureaucrats in academic accrediting institutions have been hard at work endeavoring to make life harder for college and university professors. Or so it seems. On the face of it, all their new demands appear so innocuous: they simply want to make academic institutions more "accountable" by seeing that they deliver on their claims to educate. How? By means of "measurable outcomes." In other words, if a college claims to educate all of its students in basic algebra, then graduating seniors of that institution should be able to demonstrate basic proficiency in algebra. A measurable outcome. Nice and neat.

One problem is that outcomes aren't as "measurable" in some areas as they are in mathematics. In fact, whole idea of measurable outcomes seems to fit very well only those areas in which means and ends are clearly distinguishable, as in computer science, industrial arts, auto mechanics, and carpentry. All of these disciplines involve mastery of technical skills with clearly definable purposes or ends. But measuring outcomes becomes a lot more difficult in the classic liberal arts, which lack easily recognizable ends. What is the purpose of a liberal arts education? Of course, we say that it is to educate the whole person. In its mission statement, Lenoir-Rhyne College states that it is to "to liberate mind and spirit, clarify personal faith, foster physical wholeness, build a sense of community, and promote responsible leadership for service in the world." But then, how do you measure whether you have achieved that?

Lenoir-Rhyne College is currently undergoing its periodical reassessment of its core curriculum. In conjunction with this reassessment, the college Core Committee recently submitted a list of "Student Outcomes," which it proposed for the consideration of the faculty, in an attempt to meet the demands of our accrediting agency. What follows below is the list of twelve proposed "Student Outcomes," along with my own remarks and attempted amendments. One thing that becomes quickly apparently, I think, is how difficult the matter of assessing "outcomes" becomes when one confronts the kind of goals articulated in the Lenoir-Rhyne College mission statement.
Lenoir-Rhyne students/graduates will:

1. Demonstrate effective critical thinking skills, including logic, problem solving, and textual analysis and evaluation
[insert: "in the light of classic canons of truth, morality, and faith"].

[Comment: The term "evaluation" us ambiguous. On the one hand, the term may suggest "technical evaluation" (logical-grammatical correctness), in which case it would seem unnecessary to articulate a commitment to any system of values beyond the canons of logic and grammar as the standard for evaluation.

On the other hand, "evaluation" is related to the word "value" and can (and should, especially at a church-related school) also mean "normative evaluation," implying a specific commitment to classic canons of truth, morality, and faith. In this case, an indispensable component of this outcome, in my opinion, would include such things as the ability of students to effectively understand the utter intellectual indefensibility of the pedestrian and sophomoric relativism that pervades contemporary culture. This is one of the most elementary lessons of Plato's dialogues, and one that graduating students should be able to understand and prepared to defend.

It seems to me that an indispensable component of this outcome that not only complements the technical virtues of logical assessment, but is a mark of the well-formed mind, is the intellectual virtue of being able to distinguish between intelligence and stupidity, excellence and mediocrity, virtue and vice, wisdom and foolishness, as well as religious (perhaps Lutheran, in this case) orthodoxy and heterodoxy. This is not a matter of parochial heavy-handedness but of liberal sobriety: I am not a Lutheran, but I do not believe a Lutheran school should be graduating seniors, as we have, who don't know the difference between Martin Luther and Martin Luther King, Jr., let alone what Martin Luther taught.]

2. Understand the interdisciplinary nature of knowledge.

[Comment: I agree with the importance of this point, as long as it is not assumed, for example, that the disciplines of business, economics, sociology, or computer science have the competence to teach ethics, theology, history or poetry -- or vice versa. The apprehension of the fact that knowledge is interdisciplinary is largely the province of each student's own understanding and ability to synthesize -- not that of the special sciences and disciplines to impart directly through teaching. There are only a few disciplines whose general nature may allow for some meaningful discussion of this question -- philosophy above all, and to some degree theology, history, and possibly English.]

3. Develop a sense of vocation that encompasses responsibility to
[insert: "God,"] family, community, and professional discipline.

[What can "vocation" possibly mean apart from the One who calls us? Or do we wish to remove God from the maps of the world we present to our students? This would seem understandable if this were a school in the former censorship-ridden Soviet Union, but it makes little sense in the context of our church-related college, unless we wish to jettison that appellation and affiliation.]

4. Write and speak precisely and persuasively.

5. Demonstrate basic proficiency in a second language.

6. Demonstrate understanding of the fine arts and literature
[cross out ""fine arts and literature" and insert: "the humanities -- including history, philosophy, religion, ethics, literature, and the fine arts."]

7. Understand scientific reasoning
[insert: "including major historical and contemporary scientific theories and paradigms"].

[Comment: The insertion is meant to forestall the occasional presumption that "scientific reasoning" can be adequately understood apart from its historical development and culturally-embedded philosophical assumptions.]

8. Demonstrate basic quantitative skills.

9. Comprehend the impact of social systems on individual and collective decision-making.

10. Comprehend the content of the Christian faith and tradition.

[Comment: Which "Christian faith and tradition"? Lutheran? Catholic? Protestant? American? Liberal? Conservative? Or, if specification is not desired, as in C.S. Lewis' notion of "Mere Christianity," should this not be declared in some way, even so as to allow that particular interpretations of Christianity will reflect the particular perspectives of the course instructors?]

11. Understand a culture other than their own.

[Comment: Couldn't this be linked conveniently to #5 (proficiency in a second language)? Apart from such a specifying link, the meaning of "culture" would seem quite indefinite: What do we mean by "culture" here? -- Ancient Mesopotamian culture? French Muslim culture? Hmong culture in Hickory? American Bible Belt culture? The culture of that parish magazine of affluent, self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment, the New York Times?]

12. Comprehend the impact of personal wellness on the quality of life.

[Comment: "Wellness?" Whatever became of "health"? "Wellness" sounds so ... Oh, never mind!]