Thursday, March 27, 2008

Measurement In Mind

Adam CarleAdam Carle

Department of Psychology

Have we left our college students behind? Have we failed them? Hopefully not. Surely we meet their needs. And, perhaps, just perhaps, we surpass minimal contributions and provide deeply transformational and enriching experiences. But, how would we know? Colleges and Universities around the country have begun to feel the reverberations of the No Child Left Behind Act. Nationwide we’ve begun to feel a push to document that we actually make differences in the lives of our students, post-secondary students and otherwise. And, boy howdy (as we used to say on the farm), has this caused a stir.

As a scientist, particularly a social scientist, I find much of this discussion, controversy, and dissatisfaction strange. Why? Quite simply, I don’t understand why so many of us seem to resist the notion of defining and measuring educational outcomes. Why do we resist attempts to identify and define our goals in a measurable form? Don’t we want to know whether we’ve affected our students, positively or negatively?

Without operational definitions that make educational outcomes concrete and observable, we’ll never know if we’ve made a difference in the lives of our students. I believe that many of us want to transform our students’ lives and understandings. I fundamentally appreciate the inherent difficulty in operationally defining transformation. Trust me. I genuinely feel the struggle to develop reliable and valid measures of our constructs once we do identify and define them. Believe me. A large part of my research program uses quantitative methods to empirically investigate the reliability and validity of measures used in science. I’ve devoted my research career to this I feel it so deeply.

As a scientist, I want to articulate what I intend to measure, describe how I’ll measure it, and decide whether I’ve measured it. As a professor, I want to know empirically that I’ve positively affected my students. I want to know that the methods I’ve chosen to affect my students led to that change. I can’t do that unless I define what I intend to change and specify how I’ll measure it. Can you?

It seems to me that many of us argue about whether we should define outcomes or not, rather than arguing about the adequacy of our definitions. We argue about whether we should measure, rather than how well we’ve measured it. I wish we could use the newly forming atmosphere to engage in fruitful thinking and discussion about what we’d like to see our students achieve, understand, and master by the end of a class, the end of a semester, and the end of their college career. I wish we could use this time to talk to each other about the different things each of us value and how we might define and measure those values so that we can know whether we’ve achieved them as professors. To that end, what do you hope to accomplish in a class? What do you hope to change in your students? How do you know that you’ve realized your goals? What definitions and measures do you use? I’d love to read your responses; I’m sure your peers would too.

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