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Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The importance of writing

As I may have mentioned in earlier posts, my university is in the process of putting together a system of assessing general education. At the foundation of our general education program are the basic skills. I would argue that the cornerstone of that foundation is writing.

Writing, of course, is a basic means of communication. When a student responds to a test question—at least when beyond the survey classes—the response is in writing, regardless of whether the answer is an essay, a sentence, "text", or simply just a word. Its importance is far beyond that. Writing—good writing—requires that the student have established an internal dialog. We all have multiple voices within ourselves, but having an internal dialog requires that we discipline those voices. We must be able to take an idea and attempt to support it while at the same time honestly looking for valid criticism of that idea. Such an internal dialog enables us to be surer of our opinions and to be able to defend them in a reasoned way.

I would also submit that having learned to write enables us to become better readers. The struggle to convey a particular idea using the writer's toolbox builds the ability to better examine another's writing for nuance. As someone who's played football is better able to appreciate the finer points of the game so is someone who has written better able to understand the subtleties there.

One of the reasons we have chosen to tackle writing first is because of its fundamental importance to learning at level and breadth of the university. Because of its importance, we know that it is thing that we must strive to excel at. As a consequence, the assessment tools we put in place to measure that success must be create carefully and well. These tools, and the spirit of the endeavor, will provide a template to follow in the creation of assessment tools for mathematics and communication, and from there for the rest of general education.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Journey to the core

General education at my university is designed so as to have certain basic skills at its core. These are Writing, Mathematics, and Communication. The vast majority of academics would agree on the importance and foundational nature of these subjects though, of course, each would have view of the value of each.

Communication is obviously important for its utility in helping each of us to communicate what we know. Students gain knowledge over the course of their careers and it is important that they be able to convey what they know at the end of the experience. We need also remember that communication is a two-way street. By learning to communicate one's own ideas, a student is better able to understand the methods teachers use in communicating to them. They are better able to analyze what the teacher is saying.

Writing, of course, is obviously important as a means of communication, but, in addition to this, the process of writing well and employing convincing arguments cannot be separated from critical thinking. Creating an effective argument requires having a robust internal dialog. One must not only be able to create arguments but look for holes in those arguments and find ways to patch those holes or to discern they are un-patchable.

Then my area of specialty, mathematics, enters the fray. That mathematics is basic to the physical sciences no one will dispute. Indeed, given the shift in biology from the field to the lab, few would dispute that a knowledge of mathematics is necessary to the life sciences as well. Certainly few would argue against the utility of statistics in the social sciences and business. As one drifts more deeply into the humanities one meets not only doubt as to its value but outright hostility.

As I said, I am a mathematician and we are used to hostility, so perhaps it is not surprising that I believe mathematics is important to the humanities too, but I would also concede that those in the humanities might be better served by a different sort of mathematics than those in the sciences. I can appreciate music without knowing how to play the guitar, but I can get more out of a musical experience by being taught certain things. An artist need not be taught the technical details of complex variables in order to appreciate the hyperbolic plane.

We are on the verge of appointing a task force to study the mathematical needs on this campus. It grew out of our needs in assessing the mathematical component of general education but its scope is greater than this. Ultimately, it may provide mechanisms for the university to maximize the impact of mathematics on our campus.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Value Added

As a member of my university's faculty, I've been a participant in many conversations concerning assessment. Most (and I say most just to simplify exposition) of the faculty I've known have a deep desire to make their students

  1. Love the subject they are teaching;
  2. Become as proficient at that subject as the student is capable.

But when faced with the prospect of measuring the student's knowledge in a setting larger than the faculty member's office--like that provided by an institutional assessment system--those faculty become nervous. I speak from personal experience when I say the prospect of having the quality of your work examined in not necessarily comfortable.

For the most part, we as teachers do the best we know how but, as the mathematician in me would put it, there are variables that are beyond our control and they make us feel exposed. One of the concerns frequently voiced is the preparation, or lack thereof, of students when they “come in the front door” and being held accountable for how those students perform when they go out the back door.

There are a number of reasonable answers to this concern. One of these is that all faculty at the university are teaching those same students. Ill-prepared students affect all faculty across the board.

Another answer, which is more germane to the practice of assessment, is the concept of added value.

When a diamond is taken from the mine, it is rough and dull. The diamond has to be cut by and expert hand and polished before it is marketable. When potatoes are dug from the ground, they are covered with soil. They have to be washed, pealed, and cooked before they can be eaten. The diamond and the potato have a natural worth, but value is added to them through processing.

We, in the university, attempt to add value to students in our own special way. Students come in the front door of the class, involve themselves in it activities, and should look different when they go out the back. We can measure the value-added to those students by measuring the change.

There are problems with this.

This is still bothersome because those of us who have taught know that not all students take the fullest advantage of their time under our expert guidance. For this, I retreat to my first answer that everyone teaching at the university is teaching those same students. If they don’t work for me, they are not going to work for you, and if they do work for you, perhaps I should learn from you how you get them to do it.

Another issue could be phrased in this way. Not all diamonds are the same. Some are small and are always going to be small. The master’s hand can maximize their value, but that value will have a small upper bound. Some diamonds, while large and beautiful, come in requiring very little cutting or polishing. They might leave the shop with a very high value, but that might not be much more than when they came in.

The answer to this is not as easy and may require putting an offering before the gods of statistics. It also requires us to learn more about our students and to seek better ways to teach the students we have. This includes learning the strengths and weaknesses they bring with them and learning the ways we can use their strengths and eliminate or compensate for their weaknesses.