Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Surviving measurement madness

Kratwhohl et al's Affective Domain
Going to a professional conference is like being on fantasy island. If you enthusiastically lose yourself in that special bubble of like-minded people, time stands still and arguments over esoterica assume the importance of life and death decisions. It’s refreshing and relaxing in a weird way that only academics can appreciate. Returning this week from a professional conference my mind thus felt unusually free to loosely connect some interesting dots.

Procrastinating in my return to the daily grind, I picked up the latest issue of Educause which had resided on my desk, unread, for several weeks. I flipped to the back where the essays are and chose “Life 101: A Q& A with Michael Wesch.” Wesch is an anthropologist at Kansas State. In his interview he decries the pre-eminence of SLOs—Student Learning Outcomes. Well-intentioned, he says, but he goes on to say that most faculty have “more profound goals that go unexpressed…” Furthermore, “Almost all faculty will tell you that they are interested in nurturing critical thinking, creative thinking, and problem solving” and these are “complex psychosocial and cognitive-structural developments…not just stuff you learn.”

The next dot is a conversation with a colleague, prompted by a boastful Ball State billboard about job placement, in which she stated that our current formulations of “student success” don’t capture the success stories that she values most. For example, the student who sought a bachelor’s degree not as a path to promotion or a better-paying job, but who just wanted to be able to do his current job better. Or the student who completed her degree because she liked the subject, but continued to work at a Walgreens store for many years after graduation. These students, degree completers who sought self-improvement, who may not have finished in four years, do not figure in our current measures of success. Yet in my view, which I suspect is shared by faculty colleagues, these are the student success stories that we treasure the most. I think these students’ stories are examples of the profound and unmeasured goals championed by proponents of liberal education.

My last dot, and let me say that I am creating a highly abstract work here, one that depends on the reader making the connections between my juxtaposed ideas, is my re-discovery of Kratwohl et al’s 1956 taxonomy of the affective domain. Preparing a presentation for the conference gave me yet another opportunity to reflect on the evaluation study CELT completed three years ago. The alignment of our mission with product-based outcomes (the equivalent of SLOs) still troubled me. How could we be true to our mission while using measures that would show a connection to improvement in student learning? What we are really about is motivating people to change and once motivated, providing them with the support they need in order to implement change. And yes, encouraging them, when things don’t go exactly as planned. It dawned on me that teaching centers operate heavily in the affective domain, and shouldn’t I be using that model to measure the center’s impact? Likewise, faculty can’t make progress with students in the cognitive domain without progress in the affective domain. That’s the connection between the first two dots. So I ask you to consider including affective goals in your syllabus. Use them to develop pre-tests and post-tests to study your teaching. Think about them when you are with your students in the classroom and when you read what they write in online discussions. I find that these are the goals that matter most to educating.

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