Thursday, August 13, 2015

Measuring Learning

I know... I know... This is perhaps a tricky question to answer, but bear with me here, Perhaps the answer to this question of "how do we measure learning" is "well, d'uh! with some sort of test or assessment".  This might be true in one-off training, you visibly see employees either performing or not performing, but when it comes to a higher education context what does it mean to have been badged, branded, certified (whatever the term you use) as having had an education?  In Higher Education we measure "learning" through a credit hour system. But what the heck does that mean? Well, I know what it means and its history, but how the heck does that connect to learning?

There are three critical incidents that got me thinking about this today.  First is a conversation I had with a prospective student for my day-job. The person who was inquiring about our program was asking about how many weeks our courses run each semester.  When I informed them that our programs run on a semester-basis and run for 13 weeks, this person was perplexed as to why the courses were 3 credits and not 5. This in turn perplexed me, which opened the door for an interesting mental exercise.  The potential student, it turns out, is used to a 8-week course structure for 3 credits, and so, they rightfully assumed that all schools do the same thing. There was also a good assumption (a folk explanation, but good for the amount of data that they had), that credits are based on the number of weeks a course runs.

For those who don't know, in the US the definition of a credit hour is a minimum of 3 hours of student effort per week for 15 weeks for 1 college credit). This means that a 3 credit course will require a minimum effort on the part of learners of 135 hours for each 3-credit course.  This, however, is the minimum.  A more realistic amount of effort is 4 hours of effort for each credit, which makes the total hours per 3-credit course 180 hours.  Now, your mileage may vary.  If you are taking a course in which you already know some stuff, your hours may be less.  If you are wicked smaht it might take less.  If you are like me (going off on tangents to explore interesting things) it might take more.  That said, the definition in the US ultimately boils down to the number of hours a student has put in some effort for those credits.  So, a 30-credit graduate degree from my department is something like 1400 hours - assuming you put in the minimum amount of time during class, and throw in some token time to study for your comprehensive exams. A bit short of Gladwell's 10,000 hour rule, but getting there ;-)

When I was an undergraduate, and even a graduate student, I didn't give this any thought.  I needed something like 120 credits for my undergraduate, and anywhere between 30-credits and 54-credits for my each graduate degree I earned.  I never really thought about what those credits meant, just that I needed them.  Courses were assigned a certain amount of credits, so I just scratched off courses from my list like a prison inmate at times.  My graduate degrees it didn't feel that bad, but my undergrad felt like I needed to put in my time.  Once those courses were done I banked my credits and moved onto the next course. Being now where I find myself, as a college lecturer, and a graduate program manager, what credits mean, and how to measure learning is much more important to me than when I was a student (ironic, eh?)

This whole situation reminded me of something that happened at work last year (incident #2). One of our alumnae was applying for a PhD program in Europe (#woot!) and she needed a document from us certifying she had completed a certain amount of graduate-level hours for her Masters degree in Applied Linguistics.  I was expecting to be able to do get some sort of US to ECTS conversion calculator and be done with it, but it was more complicated than that.  Europe also runs on a credit system as well.  Doing a little digging on the interwebs Masters programs are rated anywhere between 30-60 ECTS.  One ECTS, at least in Spain, is 25 hours of effort (Greece is 30), so the range of hours of effort for a European MA vary between 750 and 1500 hours.  This is still based on effort put in, and not real actual learning.  Students are still banking credits like I did.

Then, the third incident was a few weeks ago when I blogged about Campus Technology, one of the keynotes for this year, and competency based education. This isn't the first time there was something about Competency Based Education at a Campus Tech conference keynote,  A few years back there was a keynote by someone from Western Governors University.  The CBE model doesn't seem to be based on time spent on task, or effort put in by students. To some extent it seems to be more connected to what students can do rather than how much time is spent doing it.  That said, I am still left wondering how we go about measuring learning, measuring what students have learned so we can accurately certify them with confidence. This way we are reasonably assured that we have done our due diligence to prepare minds for the world outside of our own sphere of influence?

Even with the CBE model, it seems to me that there is a certain degree of banking that is going on.  I've gone through, I've completed x-many courses, I still have y-many courses left to complete to get my degree in Z. It seems to me that the discussions around curriculum are still constrained on the notion that undergrad degrees look like xyz, and they require abc of effort.  MA degrees, regardless of discipline, look like xyz, and they require abc of effort.  And so on.  I think that this isn't just a matter of assessment, bur also a matter of curriculum, but it all comes back to the same question for me: how do you measure something that may or may not be measurable?

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