Assessment Impossible-The Program Menu
The menu is the public’s first encounter with a restaurant’s offerings. The easy approach is to create novelty without selection—to add new items to menus without removing items that rarely sell. This produces unchecked growth in menu complexity. The resulting excessively long menus detract from the dining experience by confounding the choice experience for patrons. They detract from the serving staff’s ability to provide supportive information by making the offerings difficult to learn. Behind the scenes, they reduce flexibility and increase the resource burden by requiring food and preparation skills to be on-hand that might rarely be used.
The proliferation of courses in a program’s catalog resembles unchecked growth in menu complexity. Sometimes, there is no longer even a faculty member left in the department who can teach a course that was a onetime interest of a former faculty member.
A bigger problem emerges from the metaphor. Some restaurants are now required to post the nutritional content of dishes. However, the information is so disorganized that to determine the totals for a meal would require a spreadsheet program. The USDA has provided help in its new ChooseMyPlate, which divides the diet into vegetables and grains (roughly 1/4 each), fruits and proteins (1/5 each) and dairy (1/10).
The higher education analog to nutritional content is learning outcomes. After decades of research and political discussion, it is still possible to ask whether there is a program anywhere that lists the contribution of each course to the student’s total learning outcomes for the program.
There is not a consensus on what or even how many basic outcomes there are. The tradition of naming basic skills as reading, writing and arithmetic still influences many education initiatives at the local, state and national levels. But higher education aims to produce experts and only one of the two hundred experts I have interviewed produced fewer than five dimensions of the development of their expertise in the two hour span of the interviews. So perhaps the USDA’s breakdown into five categories should set a minimum. I once encountered a program’s list created over years by a committee that had forty-five learning outcomes. The problem was that for years after it was created nobody had used it. The vast majority of the experts discussed less than a dozen dimensions.
Adding what employers want to the traditional basic skills might result in a categorization something like the following: 1. Public communication (reading, writing and speaking) 2. Analysis (critical thinking, research, computer use, technical skills) 3. Adaptability (flexibility, planning, creativity) 4. Interpersonal (multicultural facility, teamwork, leadership) 5. Personal (integrity, passion, vision)
Different programs might add specialized skills to this list or divide some of the categories. The discussion suggests a program design having 5 to 12 learning outcomes. But it is not enough for program faculties to identify and agree on outcomes. The outcomes need to be understood and used by all. At a minimum each instructor should know how their own and other people’s courses contribute to the outcome.
One limit on the metaphor was that restaurant consultant, Robert Irvine criticized at least one owner for allowing too much freedom to its servers. Academics might ask if the suggested design interferes with the creativity in academic freedom or student initiative. The first of these two questions has already been the topic of whole books in itself. The short answer is to remind faculty members that academic freedom and accountability are not opposed to each other. Academic freedom never meant the freedom to do whatever one wanted. The AAUP’s landmark 1940 statement on academic freedom even allowed for religious institutions to limit classroom and research freedom provided that they declared the limits at the time of employment. In the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, the federal government explicitly supports academic freedom while at the same time demanding that institutions account for learning in a variety of ways. Like the religious institutions of the 1940 statement, the federal government is merely protecting its constituency by demanding that faculty members who accept some of their salary from federal student aid must account for the learning that they provide.
As for student initiative, just as quality restaurants allow patrons to adjust a dish to suit their dietary needs, most higher education institutions make provisions for special courses like independent studies. Asking students (and the instructors who agree to work with them) to justify such courses in terms of the program’s learning outcomes is another effective way of helping them better understand the outcomes and curriculum.
In conclusion, programs designers could improve student experiences and reduce the resources needed for serving them by reducing the catalog of courses they offer and identifying for each of the remaining courses which of 5-12 program learning outcomes it addresses at what level.