The pursuit of knowledge

Research analyzing the effectiveness of colleges should focus on more than just economic outcomes

The College Educational Quality project recently released the results of their study investigating the educational capacities of an unnamed public and private institution. Head researcher Corbin M. Campbell of Columbia University and a team of 10 graduate students analyzed syllabi and sat in classrooms to observe courses in order to assess their academic intensity and teaching quality. When they compiled all of the ratings together, they found that each school fell in the middle of the scoring scales — not a bad performance, but they could be better.

We should not be so quick to extrapolate these results, though. Only two colleges were studied — an extremely small sample size — and the assessments were done by a very small number of people. The graduate students who did the ratings were assigned to assess classes relevant to their undergraduate majors, but with only 10 graduate students participating and 153 courses observed, it was probably impossible always to match up an assessor with a course that he or she had some area of expertise in.

But even though we should refrain from generalizing the results of this study, we can still appreciate certain aspects of its methodology and intentions. The College Education Quality project utilizes tools that depart from traditional research methods and attempt to make up for their potential shortcomings. Researchers often focus on how much money students make after they graduate to assess the quality of the education they received. Campbell, quoted in the Chronicle, disagrees with this methodology: “When you talk about outcomes, it can’t just be economic … It has to be educational as well.”

A research method like Campbell’s, fallible as it may be, offers a much-needed departure from the focus on post-graduation salaries. That said, we must keep in mind the nuances of undergraduates’ educational goals. Perhaps some students do go to college in order to train for a job that will earn them the highest income possible. But money is not the end goal for everyone. For some, the pursuit of knowledge may be inherently more valuable. It seems as though that is what Campbell’s study focuses on — whether a college teaches a student as much as he can possibly learn.

A combination of Campbell’s methods alongside a study of economic outcomes may give prospective students better information when deciding what schools to attend, and may also give all institutions of higher education more information about what they can improve upon in order to satisfy a multiplicity of students pursuing various different goals.

Moving forward with this manner of research, it is important to think about the objectives of an institution. The study mentions the effect of class size on learning — classes with 25 or fewer students received much higher scores. But offering more small classes may require hiring more faculty, driving up costs of tuition. Higher tuition factors into the economic brand of analysis — is a high salary after graduating necessary to pay off the burden of college debt? Or will the students’ increased learning in the smaller classes justify the higher cost?

These kinds of questions are particularly relevant given College Dean Meredith Woo’s recent State of the College address, titled “Is (the) College Worth Paying For?” Woo emphasized the need for small classes, but qualified that large classes could expand and use better technology. She said we should be “teaching [students] how to be flexible in the way they think, helping them connect the dots, helping them think deeply.”

Such goals surrounding liberal arts education are broad, but research like the College Education Project can help us figure out how best to achieve them, if the research methods are expanded and specified. Campbell said that a follow-up study will expand its sample size to 10 institutions. Perhaps the number of assessors can be expanded as well in order to match up researches with their areas of expertise more accordingly. They can investigate the effectiveness of seminars, lecture classes and research classes. What combination optimizes student learning? How can we enhance the tools we already have? There are so many questions that we have not asked yet. But this new initiative looks promising.

Published February 10, 2014 in Opinion

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