The college learning debate

Jonathan Zimmerman's Jan. 31 Op-Ed article on colleges' inability to measure student learning prompted Viggo P. Hansen, a professor emeritus at Cal State Northridge, to write:

"The question should not be whether students are learning but rather what they are learning.

"Any dedicated student who has struggled and passed calculus, biology or computer engineering has achieved something highly demonstrative and measurable by all standards, including better heart transplants and more efficient machines: They have learned. However, if the liberal arts are having issues evaluating students' achievements as historians, politicians and poets, that is their problem.

"But before Zimmerman bemoans all tuition costs based on results provide by the College Learning Assessment essay, he should broaden his perspective. If the CLA doesn't produce meaningful results, maybe the CLA is the problem. The math-sciences seem to be doing quite well, and yes, their courses are expensive, but most things worth having are."

Jonathan Zimmerman responds:

I agree that we should try to assess the disciplinary content knowledge that students acquire, not just the reasoning and writing skills that the CLA measures. But I would question the assumption that passing a course in science or engineering — or in any discipline — necessarily reflects student learning. Hansen's examples (heart transplants and machines) reflect the collective achievements of a discipline, not what students in a given class have achieved. That will depend on the course itself: what it demands, how it is taught and what the students actually do to earn (or not) their grade. And we won't know until we devise measures of content knowledge in each discipline.

Also, subsequent research by New York University's Richard Arum and the University of Virginia's Josipa Roksa has shown that students who score in the bottom fifth on the CLA are three times more likely than students in the top fifth to be unemployed after college. They are also more likely to live at home and to incur credit card debt. So the CLA is clearly measuring something that everyone can use, no matter their disciplinary background or interests.

Finally, science and math majors, who typically aren't asked to do as much writing as liberal arts students, actually showed more improvement on the CLA as they moved through college. We don't know why. But we do know that they study more hours per week on average than their liberal arts peers, which might enhance the reasoning skills that the CLA examines.

So I congratulate Hansen and his math-science colleagues for raising the bar. We could all stand to learn from that.

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