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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.

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