Gauging student learning in higher education…I think we’re missing the point

I just read an article on The Des Moines Register about a new requirement for the three Iowa regents universities. The law, according to the article, requires professors to give a pretest/posttest assessment in their courses if they have over 300 students, with that number dropping to 100 in fall 2015. These universities are then going to need to develop a continuous improvement plan for these courses and then implement it. Sounds good…right?

Overall, I agree with the sentiment of the law. We should be paying more attention to students, especially in large courses. However, I think the law misses the point or perhaps it’s the interpretation of the law that’s off. The idea of a pre/post assessment isn’t a bad idea. However, it shouldn’t be the only data point. Rather, all teachers, whether they teach a large course or small, should be engaging in formative assessment more frequently, not just summative. A pre/post assessment is a good idea for longitudinal data to see if the course is improving in the long term. But I think the spirit of the law is to help students learn better in the near term and a pre/post assessment doesn’t do that. At least not as described in the article.

As it was described in the article, the professor will do a pretest on day one, then on the last day do a posttest, with neither score counting towards the final grade. Then the instructor can make changes to the course. However, the professor does have the ability to collect data from students through a variety of formative assessments that would allow them to make changes during the same semester, perhaps the same week if needed. The idea that we can’t change how we teach until the end of the semester is a fallacy at best and ridiculous at worst. Students are changing and will continue to change, so if we are only making changes to teaching over the longterm, then I think we’re missing the point. If this is the case, this new law isn’t going to do anything productive and will likely, as some have suggested, serve to feed the bureaucratic machine.

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