student learning as I see it

At a recent faculty forum, discussion of the curricular realignment proposal turned to the question of student learning.  As different people weighed in, it struck me that, even though many of us have been using the term “student learning” for years, some of us may have different concepts in mind.  So I thought it would be a good idea, since I think I say the phrase “student learning” at least once every hour, to explain what I mean and what I think most assessment folks mean when we say “student learning.”


Traditionally, “student learning” was a phrase that defined itself – it referred to what students learned.  However, the intent of college teaching was primarily to transmit content and disciplinary knowledge – the stuff that we normally think of when we think of an expert in a field or a Jeopardy champion.  So the measure of student learning was the amount of content that a student could regurgitate – both in the short term and the long term.


Fortunately or unfortunately, the world in which we live has completed changed since the era in which American colleges and universities hit their stride.  Today, every time you use your smart phone to get directions, look up a word, or find some other byte of arcane data, it becomes painfully clear that memorizing all of that information yourself would be sort of pointless and maybe even a little silly.  Today, the set of tools necessary to succeed in life and contribute to society goes far beyond the content itself.  Now, it’s what you can do with the content.  Can you negotiate circumstances to solve difficult problems?  Can you manage an organization in the midst of uncertainty?  Can you put together previously unrelated concepts to create totally new ideas?  Can you identify the weakness in an argument and how that weakness might be turned to your advantage?


It has become increasingly apparent that colleges and universities need to develop the set of skills needed to answer “yes” to those questions.  So when people like me use the phrase “student learning” we are referring to the development of the skill sets necessary to make magic out of content knowledge.  That has powerful implications for the way that we envision a general education or major curriculum.  It also holds powerful implications for how we think about integrating traditional classroom and out-of-class experiences in order to firmly develop those skills in students.


I would encourage all of us to reflect on what we think we mean when we say “student learning.”  First, let’s make sure we are all referring to the same thing when we talk about it.  Second, let’s move away from emphasizing content acquisition as the primary reflection of our educational effectiveness.  Yes, content is necessary, but it’s no longer sufficient.  Yes, content is foundational to substantive student learning, but very few people look at a completed functioning house and say, “Wow, what an amazing foundation.”  I’m just sayin’ . . .


Make it a good day!



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