Measuring Up

I think it’s important for students to know a lot of facts [and] figures. . . . If you haven’t acquired that basic, empirical knowledge, the structure of reflection you build upon collapses.

—Mark Bauerlein, Professor of English, Former Director of Research, National Endowment for the Arts, 2003-2005

Vol. 10 No. 2
October/November 2007

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Measuring Up
Quantifying the quality of an Emory education

Selected Results from the National Survey of Student Engagement

“Our goals are so complex that learning outcomes assessment will measure only a small part of what takes place while our students are with us.”

“I think it’s important for students to know a lot of facts [and] figures. . . . If you haven’t acquired that basic, empirical knowledge, the structure of reflection you build upon collapses.”

The New Curriculum
Medical student education in the twenty-first century

The Transforming Community Project

Practicing Diversity in the Academy
Uncovering and engaging Emory’s racial past and present

Uncovering the Past, Looking to the Future
Experiencing a community dialogue at Emory


Academic Exchange: What got you interested in learning outcomes assessment?

Mark Bauerlein:
The first thing was getting out of academia. If you are a professor, you never have to deal with broad data. You have a very small slice of students to deal with. You never have to look at admissions figures, average SAT scores, rates of applications and acceptance, the skills students have, their knowledge, their habits. You only encounter that with your twenty or thirty students per semester. It’s such a contained, miniscule experience, and let’s face it, you have no incentive for trying to understand those students in a wider context, because doing that is not going to get you a better salary increase, it’s not going to get you accepted for delivering a paper at a conference, and it’s a kind of service study that simply has no career benefit for you.

I had to start looking at a lot of these questions statistically, looking at big numbers, a national population. And that is quite a different picture from what you get when you walk into an Emory classroom.

AE: Do you advocate standardized testing of all undergraduates?

What I would advocate, quite simply, is that we have low-stakes exit exams, ‘low stakes’ meaning they’re anonymous—nothing at stake for the students, but they complete a series of questions and tasks that do test knowledge and skills in their discipline. It’s for colleges to examine themselves, not so much to examine the students. It’s more about self-examination of college curriculum and college teaching, general education requirements, grade inflation.

The impression a lot of people have is you’re strapping someone into a chair, giving them a number 2 pencil to fill in the blank, and asking the most minute, factual, trivial questions. Now, I think it’s important for students to know a lot of facts, figures, dates, stories, and biographies. Rote memorization. I have seen too many students—too many people—come into a room and start talking in abstract, conceptual, theoretical terms about subjects, and when you ask them about basic facts, they can’t answer the question. If you haven’t acquired that basic, empirical knowledge, then I think the structure of reflection you build upon collapses. I try not to cringe when people talk about developing higher-order thinking skills or critical thinking; you can’t do much critical thinking about rights in America if you don’t know the rights contained in the First Amendment. And you don’t stop there, of course. You build upon those facts and revise them. Facts can change. But the majority of facts are pretty firm these days; it’s at the edges that things get fuzzy. That is one portion of how knowledge gets assessed. Some tests will show a picture of a theater on a street, and underneath a sign saying “colored entrance,” and ask students to explain this. That’s asking them to say something intelligent about an entire social system at the time.

Finally, another side is habits and attitudes assessment. By that I mean surveys that ask questions about what people like to do or what they have done in class. Put it this way: 80 percent of undergraduates read 4 books or less in a year. Those could be any books. This goes to the general intellectual climate of the campus. Emory should be able to look at its freshmen scores from four years ago and then look at the seniors and see how the same group changed its habits. Do they read more books on their own as seniors?
Or did the number go down? Do they go to more performing arts events? It’s not to test students; it’s to see how we are changing the intellectual lives of these kids from the time they get here to the time they leave. And the results may not be very nice.

AE: Has the report of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education (the “Spellings Report”) influenced your thinking?

MB: I don’t think the Spellings Report is going far, but assessment isn’t going away. The push is probably going to come from the private sector, corporate America, businesses, manufacturers. People are worried about schools not performing. Employers are complaining that graduates are coming into their workplaces and need to be retrained because their reading and writing and math skills are so poor. Colleges need to start examining their own graduates because college graduates are going into the workplace unprepared.