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Competing Priorities: Efficacy of Teaching and Learning Assessment in the Ever-Changing Higher Education Space

Competing Priorities: Efficacy of Teaching and Learning Assessment in the Ever-Changing Higher Education Space
Higher education institutions are under pressure to improve student outcomes, but financial realities keep forcing educators to turn their attentions elsewhere.

After World War II, the academic world and society in general appeared to be in agreement that higher education is crucial for the future of our country and the economy.

The government played a central role in closing the gap between the academy and society through the creation of the GI Bill, which provided returning servicemen increased access to, and a higher likelihood of success in, the pursuit of higher education. Policymakers accepted as an unquestioned act of faith that this access is important to the future of both the society and the country. Americans also believed that higher education should be a public good, free from direct government or market forces. This compact between higher learning institutions and society obliged taxpayers to provide adequate operating funds for public colleges and universities. In return, the expectation from these taxpayers was that tuition would remain low, and students would learn through effective and rigorous instructional skills of the academicians.

Like most agreements, this one between American society and higher education institutions became strained when rights and responsibilities moved from generalities to specific demands. The publication of “A Nation At Risk” (National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983) eventually brought the focus on accountability to U.S. colleges and universities suggesting the adoption of student learning assessment. Many states across the country dictated the assessment of teaching and learning but allowed individual campuses to define, implement and identify the knowledge and skills their graduates should possess and to develop the methods for assessing the extent of their achievements. This method of accountability allowed professional autonomy by responding to external mandates while allowing internal flexibility.

With the expansion of these new requirements by policymakers, taxpayers and even accrediting bodies, a greater pressure has been placed on higher education institutions. Coincidentally, the reduction in funding for colleges and universities has found many in search of new revenue sources. These sources come through alumni donations, grants and contracts and tuition. In order to be successful in raising additional funding through external sources, many institutions are relying on their reputation through collegiate sport teams (another factor in getting alumni donations) or hiring top researchers for grants and contracts. At the same time, they try to appeal to the demand of the accrediting boards and businesses that they maintain relevance in effective forms of teaching and are able to guarantee their graduates are prepared for the knowledge economy.

The main challenge colleges and universities encounter is that of 360-degree accountability. They aspire to focus on pedagogically sound forms of teaching and learning but are unable to manage multiple priorities thrust upon them by internal and external stakeholders. Effective teaching and, in return, learning by students require a smaller class size; however, external fiscal pressures force administrators to increase class sizes. Faculty inclination is to focus on student teaching and learning, but they’re conscripted to identify external sources of grants and contracts. In order to be effective in seeking and acquiring external grants and contracts, faculty must attend conferences and perform systematic research, while financial resources and the time required for travel continually compete with the primary function of their job.

A recent report by McKinsey & Company, “Education to Employment,” found that half of America’s young people are not confident that a postsecondary education will enhance their employment opportunities. The report showed that, while 72 percent of educational institutions feel their graduates are adequately prepared, only half of students and 39 percent of employers believe graduates have the necessary skills to be effective in today’s occupations without significant time spent in on-the-job training. Many employers demand that colleges and universities place greater emphasis on assisting students to be skilled in five key learning outcomes: critical thinking, complex problem-solving, communications (both written and oral) and applied knowledge in solving real-world problems.

Effective forms of teaching and the resultant student learning require better assessment of activities in classrooms. This will happen only when class sizes become manageable and there’s a shift in emphases on the part of the institutional mission of colleges and universities. Competing priorities play only one role, which hinders effective teaching and successful student understanding. Some pundits suggest that new technologies such as online education will solve the problem of increased class sizes. Unfortunately, the reality is that online educational platforms do not reduce the class sizes but instead increase the number of students in a class while removing much interaction between faculty instructions and learning assessment.  Nevertheless, the argument exists that the only way to lower the cost of higher education and create financial sustainability is through greater reliance on new technology.

Need for a True Focus on Teaching and Learning

The time has come for higher education institutions to move away from lip-service for effective teaching and assessment of student learning by establishing a stable and focused model that enables colleges and universities to prepare students for 21st-century skills that employers are seeking.

In order to develop well-rounded students, colleges and universities must move away from the existing paradigm and concentrate on self-reflective methods of teaching and learning, such as prior knowledge assessment, concept mapping, integrated performance rubrics, observational strategy of video-taping classroom teaching and student presentations so feedback is more meaningful and constructive, the use of portfolios in which students collect their work and discover improvements through reflective practice, and return to reliance on one-on-one consultations with faculty.

Without these strategies, teaching and learning assessment remains a fictional practice.

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