Is it time to dump credit hours?

“Time-based units were never intended to be a measure of student learning,” writes Amy Laitenen of New America Foundation in The Curious Birth and Harmful Legacy of the Credit Hour.

“If credit hours truly reflected a standardized unit of learning,” students wouldn’t have so much trouble transferring credits from one college to another, she writes in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

. . .  colleges routinely reject credits earned at other colleges, underscoring their belief that credit hours are not a reliable measure of how much students have learned. If higher education doesn’t trust its own credits, why should anyone else?

. . . Without broader agreement about learning outcomes, credits and the value of degrees will remain opaque. Measuring time is easy, but measuring learning is hard. . .  . Those in higher education must roll up their sleeves and commit to the hard work of figuring out together what it is they expect students to know and how best to meaningfully assess what they have learned.

Some colleges are experimenting with the Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which creates a framework for what students should know and be able to do, regardless of discipline. Lumina also has created Tuning, a process for faculty to “fine-‘tune’ their expectations and make them clear to students, other institutions, and employers,” writes Laitenen.

. . . federal policy can help catalyze such efforts by leveraging the government’s authority to use financial aid—a huge incentive for institutions—to pay for learning. Today the multibillion-dollar federal financial-aid system runs on the credit hour. And it gets only what it pays for: time.

Richard Schur, an associate professor of English at Drury University, likes the credit, he writes, also in the Chronicle of Higher Education. “Education is a process, not a destination,” Schur writes. It’s “not reducible to a set of facts or skills.”

My paradigm for teaching comes from Socrates. What is interesting about Socrates is that he doubted his wisdom, so he interrogated those who claimed to possess competency, experience, and knowledge. What he frequently learned was that those who claimed to have the answers rarely did.  . . . the Socratic dialogue, imitates what should be happening in the classroom, with its give and take between student and teacher.

I know that the critics of the credit hour will point out how the example of Socrates illustrates precisely what is wrong with the existing model. First, Socrates did not have clear learning objectives for his students; his dialogues meander all over the place. Second, there was no outcome assessment, so we are not sure what, if anything, his interlocutors actually learned from these sessions. Third, this would be a very costly model to implement, especially with all the feasting and drinking. Fourth, this kind of education seems to privilege a life of luxury and wealth, which does not match the backgrounds of today’s students. Last but certainly not least, it is not clear that any of Socrates’ students ever got jobs, probably violating the “gainful employment” rule.

Time matters, argues Schur. It takes time “to have conversation, work on building student habits, develop relationships, and to try to make students into good citizens.”

Lumina: same goals, new strategies

Lumina Foundation’s new strategic plan for 2013-2016 describes new ideas for ways to reach the foundation’s goal:   60 percent of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials by 2025.  The plan calls for:

Creating new models of student financial support that make college more affordable, make costs more predictable and transparent, provide incentives to increase completion, and align federal, state and institutional policies and programs.

Creating new higher education business and finance models that significantly expand the nation’s capacity to deliver affordable, high-quality education—supported by public finance and regulatory policies that create incentives for, and remove barriers to, innovation.

Creating new systems of quality credentials and credits defined by learning and competencies rather than time, clear and transparent pathways to students, high-quality learning, and alignment with workforce needs and trends.

Lumina plans to spend $300 million over the next four years.

“There hasn’t been enough progress on the attainment agenda,” Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president, told Inside Higher Ed.

Lumina will also continue to push completion-related efforts at both the state and federal levels. And the foundation’s leadebbrs said federal policy would be crucial in shaping a modern higher education system necessary to encourage the 23 million additional degrees and meaningful credentials needed to hit 60 percent attainment.

They pointed to a desperate need for strong leadership at the federal level on questions about the structure of student aid, quality assurance and accreditation, and the alignment of workforce development and higher education.

Lumina wants to make it easier for students who’ve learned on the job, online or on their own to earn credits for competency.  Officials also are keeping an eye on “emerging forms of credentialing, like certificates issued by massive open online course (MOOC) providers,” notes Inside Higher Ed.  Lumina will add certificates to its Degree Qualifications Profile, which “attempts to establish what constitutes a valuable college degree.”

Competency credentials ‘blow up’ the credit hour

Southern New Hampshire University plans a $5,000 online, competency-based associate degree that would “blow up the credit hour — the connection between college credit and the time students spend learning,” reports Inside Higher Ed. A regional accreditor has approved the university’s “direct assessment” method. The university will apply for federal approval to qualify students for federal aid.

In competency-based models, students demonstrate their learning through assessments, notes Inside Higher Ed. “If the tests lack rigor and a link to real competencies, this approach starts looking like cash for credits.”

Southern New Hampshire’s “College for America” will start with an associate degree in general studies and add competency-based bachelor’s degree programs.

The university will assess 120 competencies for the associate degree. Lumina’s Degree Qualifications Profile, which attempts to define what degree holders should know and be able to do, served as the basis for defining those competencies, along with the university’s general education goals. Other sources were used as well, like the U.S. Department of Labor’s competency pyramids.

Competencies are broken into 20 distinct “task families,” which are then divided into three task levels. For example, the “using business tools” family includes tasks like “can write a business memo,” “can use a spreadsheet to perform a variety of calculations” and “can use logic, reasoning and analysis to address a business problem.”

When students pass tests on the competencies within a family, “they will be deemed to have the knowledge and skills necessary to pass a 100- or 200- level, three-credit course,” according to the university.

The university is partnering with large employers, including ConAgra Foods and the City of Memphis, which will steer workers to the university’s College for America.

Twenty other colleges and universities are working with Western Governors University — also online and competency-based — on degree programs that will let students earn relatively low-cost degrees at their own pace and in their own homes.  Competency-based programs are expanding, according to a Lumina report.

Measuring academic drift

Forty-five percent of college students don’t improve their reasoning or writing skills in the first two years of college, concludes the Academically Adrift study by Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Thirty-six percent show no progress after four years.

Learning is more than analytical thinking, responds Robert Sternberg, an Oklahoma State provost and psychology professor, in Inside Higher Ed. The Arum-Roksa study relies on the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures analytical thinking but doesn’t assess creative thinking, practical thinking (the ability to apply knowledge) or wise and ethical thinking, writes Sternberg, a testing expert.

Lumina Foundation’s Degree Qualifications Profile offers a better guide for evaluating students’ learning, Sternberg writes. He also praises the  Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative, which lists” knowledge of human cultures and the physical and natural world; intellectual and practical skills; teamwork and problem solving; personal and social responsibility; and integrative and applied learning” as “essential learning outcomes.”

In addition, CLA doesn’t measure “tacit knowledge” that students should gain in college, such as learning how to “form relationships with people and network effectively, how and from whom you seek help when you need it, how you decide whom you can trust and of whom you should be suspicious, how you meet the demands of an organization (collegiate or otherwise) while maintaining a meaningful life, and so forth.”

Ultimately, the goal of college education is to produce the active citizens and positive leaders of tomorrow — people who will make the world a better place. Narrow tests of cognitive skills do not measure the creative, practical, and wisdom-based and ethical skills that leaders need to succeed. We can and truly must assess much more broadly.

I have trouble believing that students who aren’t learning to think analytically or communicate clearly are learning to be creative, practical or wise. It would be great to assess students’ progress in a broad range of competencies, but there are limits to what’s practical or fair. Colleges aren’t going to deny degrees to students who lack creativity or wisdom, much less to those who haven’t learned how to network effectively or “maintain a meaningful life.”

The study did not include community college students, notes CC Dean. Community college students aren’t on campus for football and the fraternity parties, but they have other distractions — jobs and kids — from academics.

Degree Profile puzzles educators

Lumina Foundation‘s newly announced Degree Qualifications Profile was “a source of fascination (and some skepticism)” at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

The profile—which is referred to by its authors as a “beta version”—is based loosely on “quality assurance” frameworks that have been adopted in Britain, Australia, and other nations. It sketches broad skills that should be universally acquired at each degree level. No matter what bachelor’s-degree students major in, the document says, for example, they should be able to construct “sustained, coherent arguments and/or narratives and/or explications of technical issues and processes, in two media, to general and specific audiences.”

Panelists offered a wide range of uses for the framework: encouraging faculty to ensure students learn needed skills; serving as a “learning contract” between students and colleges; simplifying transfers from community colleges to four-year institutions; making it easier for accreditors to assess colleges, and making college degrees more legible to policy makers and employers.

The profile will be tested at several dozen colleges and universities during the next two years.

Members of the audience said they were confused about how much flexibility colleges would have to modify the degree-profile template to suit their individual characters. The panel’s answers did not necessarily add much clarity. “You can color within the outline,” (co-author Peter) Ewell said, “but you can’t color outside the lines.”

. . . Audience members also wondered whether the degree profile might herald an era when students can graduate after they demonstrate a certain set of skills, regardless of whether that takes them one year or seven years to accomplish. One person asked, “Are we witnessing the end of the credit-hour system?” The panelists generally said that they did not intend anything so radical, but Mr. Ewell said, “If taken seriously, this does represent a shift in that direction.”

Don’t underestimate the political challenges of implementing the framework, said George D. Kuh, a principal investigator of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

The Degree Profile is As Elusive as the Snark, complains Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, in a Chronicle commentary. The degree profilers deny their framework will “standardize degrees” or “define what should be taught or how instructors should teach it.” So, what does it do? Wood asks.

The report lists five reference points: specialized knowledge, broad/integrative knowledge, intellectual skills, applied learning, and civic learning.

“Specialized knowledge and broad/integrative knowledge are only superficially distinct,” Wood writes. Creating separate categories is a way to avoid confronting the disintegration of the core curriculum, he speculates.

The genuine breadth of shared knowledge that comes from a college or university determining that all students must master certain key ideas, texts, words, and intellectual experiences is replaced in the Lumina scheme by the idea that “broad/integrative” knowledge is its own thing—in effect another specialization rather than the common ground of all learning.

The separation of “intellectual skills” from “applied learning,” also concerns Wood. “What graduates know” and “what they can do with what they know” isn’t the same thing, he concedes. But the examples of “doing” are weighted to what’s done outside the classroom in the “community.”

Lumina appears to have quietly endorsed the idea favored by one branch of postsecondary education that students can, at least in some fields, concentrate on the “doing” while not wasting too much time on the “knowing.”

The “civic learning” benchmark will mean “efforts to ‘transform’ students’ beliefs and attitudes to conform to progressive ideals,” Woods writes.

Stopping the academic drift

Many college students are getting a credential, not an education, writes Carol Geary Schneider, president of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, in a guest post on College, Inc. Lumina Foundation‘s Degree Qualifications Profile will provide a mooring for students who are “academically adrift,” argues Schneider, who helped draft the framework.

The profile spotlights “what students actually do with their academic time in college,” calling for “a new regimen of practice and constantly applied learning to help students get back on course,” Schneider writes.

Drawing from hundreds of on-campus discussions across the U.S., the profile outlines the competencies students should develop and demonstrate through their specialized studies (the major), through broad, integrative studies (general education redefined) and by constant practice of intellectual skills such as analytical inquiry, use of information resources, engaging diverse perspectives, quantitative analysis and communication to different audiences.

The Degree Profile underscores the significance of “applied” learning, students’ ability to integrate their learning and apply it directly to problems that that matter in the economy and in global and civil society.

. . . students should apply their learning to real problems while in college — through projects, research, creative work, internships, involvement in community-based debates and problem-solving. Students should work on tasks, in other words, that both develop the skills they need and show what they actually can do with their knowledge.

The Degree Profile is a road map with a set of alternative routes, Schneider writes.

There are many ways that students can achieve the expected competencies — depending on what they choose to study in college — but whatever the route they choose, certain kinds of knowledge, skill, applied learning and civic problem-solving need to be acquired by the end of the journey-and demonstrated as the basis for the degree.

Using high-tech assessment tools, professors can track how well students are   developing and demonstrating the expected competencies.

Faculty can discover–before it’s too late — that Suzie is doing almost no writing; that Rafe (who took the one required math course as a duel enrollment while in high school) hasn’t done a single assignment using quantitative analysis since he entered college; and that neither of them knows much of anything about the global developments that are creating such turbulence in the economy and in democracy.

Professors will have to design assignments “to build students’ ability to tackle complex, unscripted problems,” Schneider writes. That could be a challenge.

Defining degrees

What does a degree mean? The Lumina Foundation has developed a proposed Degree Qualifications Profile that tries to define the general knowledge and skills that should be required to earn associate, bachelor’s and master’s degrees.  The framework “is intended to help define generally what is expected of college graduates, regardless of their majors or fields of study, says the report.

“As part of our national goal to dramatically increase the percentage of Americans with high-quality degrees, we need a shared understanding of what a degree represents in terms of learning,” said Jamie P. Merisotis, president and CEO of Lumina Foundation. “We want to create a shared understanding of what these degrees mean, which doesn’t exist now, and then to test whether this Degree Profile can be implemented in ways that further our understanding.”

Clifford Adelman, Peter Ewell, Paul Gaston and Carol Geary Schneider developed the Degree Profile with feedback from expert reviewers.

All students should demonstrate competence in specialized knowledge, broad/integrated knowledge, applied learning, intellectual skills and civic learning, the report states. It includes suggestions for tasks students could complete to demonstrate their mastery, but it will be up to individual colleges to decide how to measure students’ learning.

Here’s Lumina’s Q&A on the project.

Lumina is a leader in the movement to increase the number of Americans with college degrees, notes Daniel de Vise in the Washington Post’s College Inc.  The push for more degrees has raised concerns about the quality of those degrees.

Other developed nations have already developed universal standards to measure the skills of university graduates. But in the U.S., most colleges have defined degrees in terms of “seat time” — hours spent inside classrooms, earning passing grades.

Colleges and universities would develop assessments to “validate and document student mastery of each competence on its list,” Adelman said. “These could come from paper assignments, performance instructions, exhibit catalogues, laboratory assignments, test (not standardized, but course-embedded) questions, etc.”

The Degree Qualifications Profile will be a hard sell on campus, several higher education experts told Inside Higher Ed.

“A learning framework that really promotes student success has to be developed at the local level and has to be led by front-line faculty and staff,” Larry Gold, higher education director for the American Federation of Teachers, said via e-mail. “Nothing is less likely to help students succeed than an overly standardized curriculum and assessment regime imposed from the outside.”

Lumina wants colleges to see the framework as a starting point, not a mandate from on high.

Many college students aren’t learning reasoning and writing skills, concludes a new book, Academically Adrift, by sociologists Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa. Arum told Inside Higher Ed he was impressed by the Lumina document.

“It draws attention to what students know, rather than to the general ‘let’s count course credits and assume they’ve gotten something out of it’ approach to students,” he said. “If colleges and universities did this, it would shift things in a positive way.”

Arum described himself as “skeptical,” however, about “where the incentives are to get the colleges and universities to do this, to decide ‘this is a useful framework to us.’ “

If colleges don’t pay attention to student learning, politicians will “threaten to wade in and fix the problem,” Adelman warned. “If higher education runs away from this challenge, it will lose all its claims to sanctity” on questions of student learning.