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Learning, Teaching and Assessment in Higher Education: Global Perspectives
Date Reviewed: February 4, 2016
This global study of teaching, learning, and assessment goes beyond the typical single country context to extend to good pedagogical practice on six continents.The argument of each chapter is supported by examples of good practice accounts from around the world, a collection that forms a refreshing change from a generic case study model. Although the examples lean most heavily toward English-speaking institutions and classrooms, there is significant attention paid to various elements of pedagogy from many cultural perspectives. The author takes great care throughout the book to consider all elements of the changing higher education landscape, including the changing student body, changes in technology, and changes in expectations about the goals of higher education and graduate employability.
The twelve chapters of this book take a comprehensive view of diversity in higher education teaching, learning, and assessment. The book opens with a consideration of cultural mores and assumptions that directly affect interactions in higher education. Brown looks both to the past and the future in subsequent chapters, noting pedagogical traditions and innovations in the context of today’s higher education landscape. She argues that we must adjust to a technology-rich world that necessitates more focus on “learning how and learning why than on learning what” (21). Her view of technology in the balance as both a distraction and a valuable addition to certain aspects of both teaching and learning is refreshing, as so many books either glorify or decry technology in classrooms and society. This ability to see things in the balance is one of the greatest strengths of this book: rather than arguing for a “best” way to teaching or learning or assessment, this book offers multiple possibilities from multiple contexts and thus leaves much to the reader to judge based on his or her context and constraints.
Brown identifies a few global trends. The most widespread seems to be a move from transmissive to transformative education. She notes that there is a “movement from perceiving the university teacher as an all-knowing, unchallengeable authority figure” (27) and parallel a movement by institutions and disciplines toward encouraging learning outside of the lecture hall. Another trend is teaching toward the multiple literacies expected of a twenty-first century graduate, looking well beyond academic literacy to digital, assessment, and interpersonal literacies (88). Finally, Brown notes that all education needs to think of itself as taking place in a global environment. This book is itself a fine way to encourage broader thinking about pedagogical contexts in higher education: our students are shortchanged when we privilege our own pedagogical traditions and ignore the broader, global context of higher education.
The strengths of this book are many. For instance, the author provides substantive and exhaustive bulleted lists in each chapter, a diverse set of highlighted good practice accounts, and a full chapter devoted to higher education teacher development. The book is easy to navigate, written in clear prose, and at once expansive but grounded in particulars. I would recommend this book highly to teachers and administrators in higher education across the disciplines.
Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates
Date Reviewed: July 15, 2015
Aspiring Adults Adrift: Tentative Transitions of College Graduates, by Richard Arum, professor in the Department of Sociology at NYU and senior fellow at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and Josipa Roska, associate professor of sociology and education and associate director of the Center for Advanced Study of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education at the University of Virginia, is the much-anticipated sequel to the authors’ celebrated, often cited, and hotly debated Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (2011), which documented in great detail the academic gains – and stagnation – of some 2,300 students of traditional college age enrolled at a range of 4-year college and universities. In the 2011 report, students were measured on gains in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and other “higher level” skills taught at college, and the results were not encouraging. The most often-cited findings included: 45 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” during the first two years of college; and 36 percent of students “did not demonstrate any significant improvement in learning” over four years of college. The main culprit for students’ lack of academic progress, the authors claimed, is lack of rigor, particularly with respect to critical reading and analytical writing.
Aspiring Adults Adrift tracks the same cohort of undergraduates out into the working world into (what should be) adulthood, and documents their struggles to make the transition to traditional adult roles. The results of this follow-up study are no more inspiring: 24 percent of graduates living at home with their parents; 74 percent of graduates receiving financial support (in some cases quite substantial) from their families; and 23 percent of graduates in the labor market who are unemployed or underemployed. Despite these discouraging findings, however, the authors report that these graduates are quite optimistic about their futures, 95 percent of them reporting that they expect their lives to be better than their parents. The authors set out to determine what accounts for this optimism.
One compelling argument put forward by Arum and Roksa is a theory given recent prominence by social psychologist Jeffrey Arnett in his notion of “emerging adulthood,” a new demographic identified as the period between eighteen and twenty-five years of age, a period of “self discovery” and “self exploration” during which adolescence is extended; a period in which these aspiring college-educated young adults struggle with identity exploration, instability, and self-focus, often do not live independently, are un- or underemployed, and do not have the income to be financially self-sufficient.
Arum and Roksa put the blame, fairly or unfairly, largely on institutions of higher education, and their commitment to “promoting a personnel perspective that celebrate(s) self-exploration and social well-being” (11) – put more bluntly, that caters to the ethos of consumer society, and a broader “cultural adoption of a therapeutic ethic” (9): “both the students and institutions have put such a high focus on social engagement as a key component of higher education that the students have come to believe that it’s those skills and networks that are going to be critically important for their lifelong success.” The evidence, however, suggests otherwise; that the emphasis on social “engagement” at the expense of academic rigor is not achieving these results. “Widespread cultural commitment to consumer choice and individual rights, self-fulfillment and sociability, and well-being and a broader therapeutic ethic leave little room for students or schools to embrace programs that promote academic rigor” (136). It is, the authors contend, ultimately a mutually-reinforcing race to the bottom: “This may reflect the self-centered nature of emerging adulthood,” they write, “or the education system’s decreasing emphasis on preparing individuals for participating in a democratic society. Whatever the underlying causes of this tendency, colleges could adopt a more productive role in the development of values and dispositions for greater engagement with the world at large” (113). In essence, the responsibility is ours, as educators, to reject consumer satisfaction as “a worthy aim for colleges and universities” and “do more to help students develop the attitudes and dispositions they need to reach their aspirations” (134). Wherever the solutions lie to the oft-cited “crisis in higher education,” the authors of Aspiring Adults Adrift have once again contributed significantly to the centrality of educator-led reform.
Specifications Grading: Restoring Rigor, Motivating Students, and Saving Faculty Time
Date Reviewed: April 23, 2015
Concerns about mastery of learning outcomes or competencies, grade inflation, student motivation, and faculty time compel reflection on how we assess students in higher education. In Specifications Grading, Nilson critiques the traditional, point-based grading system and argues that students should be assessed on whether they have mastered course learning outcomes. She proposes specifications (specs) grading as a positive alternative to the current grading system.
Nilson makes the case for specs grading in ten chapters. Chapter 1 examines critiques of the traditional grading system and offers fifteen criteria for judging a grading system. Chapter 2 briefly introduces learning outcomes and course design. In chapter 3, Nilson shows that grades should correspond to whether a student has mastered learning outcomes. Nilson ties grades to specific learning outcomes: a student can earn higher grades for demonstrating the amount of their learning, mastering more learning outcomes, or both (25). In chapter 4, Nilson argues that assessments should be graded pass/fail because this raises the expectation for a passing grade to the B-level. This also potentially reduces faculty time spent grading as it eliminates the need to justify partial credit. In chapter 5, Nilson outlines some aspects of specs grading: a single level rubric, faculty clarity on assignments and assessment, student choice, and opportunities to resubmit work. Chapter 6 describes how to convert specs grading to final course grades by either employing a point system for assessment or requiring students to complete certain assessments (bundles or modules) to achieve a particular course grade. Chapter 7 offers examples of courses that employ specs grading in diverse disciplines. After addressing theories of motivation, chapter 8 demonstrates how specs grading can motivate students to master learning through student choice. Chapter 9 explains how to design a specs grading course and introduce students to this grading system. Chapter 10 evaluates specifications grading according to the fifteen criteria set out in chapter 1.
Among its strengths, Specifications Grading offers experiential evidence from faculty as well as examples of specs grading from diverse disciplines. These examples encourage faculty to creatively re-envision their courses. Moreover, Nilson challenges faculty to draw on adult learning theories and motivational theory to promote mastery of course outcomes and encourage students to achieve their potential. Nonetheless, Nilson recognizes faculty’s hesitation in committing to a new grading system. As a result, Nilson describes (pure) specs grading courses as well as blended courses: courses that employ a mixture of point-based assessment and specs grading. These options enable faculty to slowly adjust to the new grading system or to attend to departmental or institutional grading expectations.
Nilson argues provocatively for the ways specifications grading motivates students and raises the standard of student work. To do this, faculty must know their expectations for student work and be clear in the directions for assignments. Moreover, faculty must expect students to fulfill those expectations – to take responsibility for their own grades and master course outcomes.
Designing Teacher Evaluation Systems: New Guidance from the Measures of Effective Teaching Project
Date Reviewed: April 8, 2015
Designing Teacher Evaluation Systems is a collection of sixteen articles analyzing data produced by the Measures of Effective Teaching project, an initiative of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The research was conducted with three thousand pre-collegiate teachers working in urban districts. The results and the articles forming the book itself are divided among three themes: using data for feedback and evaluation, connecting evaluation measures with student learning, and the properties of evaluation systems. In short, the book takes on the challenge of what classroom observations and standardized test scores can tell us about good teaching. The core audience for the book seems to be those responsible for educational policy and leadership in primary and secondary schools.
University faculty, especially those responsible for the evaluation of classroom teaching, may find this book to be of some use. The third chapter underscores the difficulty of consistency in classroom observation scores and insists on training procedures “that discipline observer judgments in order to produce valid and reliable scores” (53). The chapter goes on to analyze the distinctive approaches of “master scorers” versus those who are newly initiated. Similar arguments are made in the twelfth chapter on minimizing rater bias in classroom observations. The tenth chapter, “Understanding Instructional Quality in English Language Arts,” may be interesting to instructors in the humanities at any level. The authors of the study note that evaluation systems “make transparent what an organization values” and “no observation instrument is neutral” (325). They report that instructional quality varies in relation to the content of lessons and single out the teaching of writing as particularly challenging; an insight that college educators can appreciate.
In chapter eleven, researchers investigate how “working conditions predict teaching quality and student outcomes” (332). Their evidence reveals that “active believer” teachers who maintain high expectations for their students and participate actively with colleagues produce better results in their classrooms. Amusingly, teachers in the contrasting and ineffective category are deemed “isolated agnostics.” It is also shown that students benefit from a mixture of “academic support” and “academic press” – they are fostered in different ways by being both cared for and challenged. This chapter ends with a list of thought-provoking implications for how educational leaders can create a better environment for effective teaching. Chapter fourteen offers another look at the “cognitive complexity” of scoring classroom observation rubrics (436). It is suggested that an observation cycle might be an effective remedy, where an initial thirty-minute observation focused on scoring a rubric precedes a longer diagnostic observation. In this way the observer is able to provide more focused feedback.
The data-driven authors of this book would be the first to admit the conclusions within are not necessarily translatable to the college environment. I cannot, therefore, recommend a cover-to-cover reading to faculty working on the evaluation of university teaching. I do, however, believe that individual chapters contain interesting points of reflection on the teacher evaluation process at any level and have endeavored to highlight some of the best examples above.
Achieving Excellence in Teaching: A Self-help Guide
Date Reviewed: February 26, 2015
If you are looking for a book on teaching in higher education that does not scare you off with its heft, or frustrate you with its discipline-specific content, or confuse you with so many tips your head spins, then this little book might be just the thing for you! The authors combine their 110 years of faculty development and educational experience to offer their “Ten Top Traits for Terrific Teachers,” targeting the basic dispositions, skills, and strategies that have the greatest impact on deep student learning. Furthermore, they encourage teachers to reflect on their practice with a series of rubrics and action plans: “To improve by increments you must do something” (108). Throughout, they give snapshot summaries of the best research, all in a conversational tone.
In an unusual turn, the first half of the book deals, not with mastery of content or course design, but with the internal drivers of the teacher. According to the research, teachers in the classroom have the most impact on students’ success, especially those teachers who exhibit a set of dispositions, or “positive ideologies of self, others, and the very act of teaching” (17-18). More specifically, these teachers demonstrate passion for their subject, professing, and student success; they care deeply, build excellent rapport with students and colleagues, and demand excellence from students and themselves. These dispositions can be learned.
The second half of the book addresses the more external markers of excellent teaching. The authors promote solid organization that clearly identifies student learning outcomes and directly links related assessment and learning activities (47). They promote the use of CRISP to create a unity of purpose in individual classes: Contextualize; Review; Iterate; Summarize; and Preview (49-54). They encourage teachers to be “mentors from the middle,” to assume as necessary such roles as facilitator, coach, artist, critical reflector, model, and scholar (61). The authors encourage the use of technology in service of higher-level learning goals, and they recommend the most useful and cost-effective strategies (71-77). They encourage teachers to integrate their teaching, scholarship, and service in order to stimulate student interest and to model scholarly behavior (95). They promote experimentation and welcome creativity into the classroom both by accident and by design. Finally, they invite teachers to consider their teaching environments – everything from the space in which they teach to the psychological space they create for student risk-tolerance (105-109).
While not specifically addressing educational strategies in religion and theology, this little volume compacts significant research on teaching and learning into accessible portions – enough to get started but not too much to overwhelm – with support from a concise and pertinent bibliography. And it invites readers to set plans in place for improvement and on-going assessment with its set of rubrics. The book is a useful entry point for both new and seasoned teachers to revitalize and to enhance their teaching practice. It is my choice for use in faculty development initiatives.