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Margin Notes

What, and how, are students learning?

Global experts on learning assessment gather at recent HEQCO conference in Toronto.


This is a guest post by University Affairs‘ editor Peggy Berkowitz.

At a time when many stakeholders in Canada’s postsecondary education sector are focused on the value of an undergraduate degree and experience, I felt privileged to be invited to a recent conference called Measuring the Value of a Postsecondary Education, put on by the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario. The two-day event gave a wonderful overview of the current expertise in the world about learning assessment.

The consensus of the world’s experts is that to properly understand how students learn and what students have learned in their undergraduate program, hypotheses need to be developed, tested, compared and then scaled up.  Another consensus was that faculty members and students must be involved right from the beginning or the efforts won’t be successful.

(I couldn’t help but contrast this conference with another one, about 12 years ago, that also looked at student outcomes. The discussion then centred on some predictable and, we have since learned, not the most effective measures, such as graduation rates and employment rates of graduates. The main research tool to gauge a student’s learning experience seemed to be student exit surveys taken on their graduation day.)

Now, there is so much more going on. For example, Lumina, a 10-year-old private U.S. foundation with a $1 billion endowment, is pursuing a single goal: to increase the proportion of Americans who hold high-quality degrees and credentials to 60 percent by 2025.  After many explorations of how improve both access and quality,  “We’ve concluded it’s all about learning – what students know and are able to do,” explained Holiday Hart McKiernan, Lumina’s vice-president operations (as delightful a speaker as her first name promised). Lumina’s new framework, a Degree Qualifications Profile, is being tested at postsecondary institutions across the U.S. (Our regular blogger Léo Charbonneau did a blog post on the Lumina framework back in January, here.)

In its research, Lumina studied what was going on in Europe, especially through the Tuning Process, which is an effort to design curricula based on student-centred outcomes that has spread from the European Union to dozens of countries – however, not Canada (perhaps because we don’t have a federal system of education). The process was started by academics and students to come up with better university programs based on the concept of student-centred learning, instead of “the workload-based credit system,” said Robert Wagenaar, professor at the University of Groningen and joint coordinator of Tuning worldwide. They use the term “competencies” to describe outcomes “that are both generic skills and discipline-specific skills. We are not looking for harmonization but for diversity.”

Other presenters, well-known in the field, included Roger Benjamin, president of the New York-based Council for Aid to Education that developed the Collegiate Learning Assessment, currently considered by many experts as the best instrument (and last week, HEQCO put out a call for expressions of interest from colleges and universities that want to pilot the CLA in Ontario); Jillian Kinzie, associate director of the Indiana University Centre for Postsecondary Research, which developed the National Survey of Student Engagement now used by all Ontario universities and colleges and many others in Canada; and Lorne Whitehead, professor of physics who leads the Carl Weiman Science Education Initiative at the University of British Columbia, a five-year, $12-million project to “dramatically improve” undergraduate science education at UBC. Dr.  Whitehead, an engaging speaker, addressed some of the pitfalls with trying to improve how we teach and learn. “If we do not measure quality, quality will not improve,” he noted. But measurement is controversial; humans and organizations are complex, and there are problems with measurement in all fields. “It’s hard stuff,” he conceded.

HEQCO plans to post the slide presentations and some of the videotaped sessions on its website. I hope, these include the presentation by Rob Kapilow, a conductor, composer and educator extraordinaire who gave us a taste of how he brings the joy of classical music to audiences of all kinds.  Relying on the story of his own circuitous career path (and a piano), he described the 12 things he has found valuable to learn, starting with “Listen for the ‘hmmm.’” Like the best classes any of us has been privileged to be part of, his was priceless.

Peggy Berkowitz

Léo Charbonneau
Léo Charbonneau is the editor of University Affairs.
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  1. susan bloch-nevitte / May 30, 2011 at 11:15

    It’s great to see there are still journalists out there who care deeply about education and are allowed the time and “ink” to dig down beyond the headlines!

  2. Peggy Berkowitz / June 20, 2011 at 14:07

    Some presentation materials from this conference, The Value of a Postsecondary Education, are now available on the HEQCO website.

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