The August 2, 2006 issue of Signal Hill Capital's Education Signals reported on the failure of colleges and universities to meet the nation's need for STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) graduates by noting that:
"Congressional hearings on an American crisis in engineering graduates have heard from a variety of witnesses offering explanations including losses to the “hot” science biology, poor undergraduate instruction, and the “nerd stigma.” However the IHE writes that the congressmen may have missed more obvious explanations, including the evidence of a 1998 College Board survey showing that engineering students receive poorer grades than non-engineering students. Eighty-five percent of those students that had received AP credit (i.e. high-achieving) in English received A’s and B’s in college level English classes, while the comparable percentage for math students was 54%. Because students look to grades for indications of fields in which they are likely to meet with success, they drop off hard science tracks."
Whether or not the "normal" grade distributions in STEM curricula are the cause of an undersupply of STEM graduates, there is every reason to think more broadly about the role of grades in higher education -- and a number of issues that stem (no pun intended) from the dependence of a degree on credit hours and course grades. Taking the degree to be higher education's ultimate service or "product," consider, for example, the following hot topics:
- Grade and GPA inflation -- differentiating student performance
- Accountability for learning -- the learning signified by a degree
- Measuring the learning "added" relative to the knowledge or preparedness profile of an institution's incoming student body.
- Time to degree -- affects the internal cost of granting a degree and the price to the student of a degree
- Rising internal per-graduate costs of a "higher education"
- Accountability for providing degree programs designed to meet local, regional, and national workforce and professional needs -- issues such as the shortage of STEM, teacher education, and nursing graduates
My first observation concerns item 3: measuring "value-added" learning. The market for college graduates clearly cares more about the extent to which a graduate's skills of mind and body exceed the minimum qualifications for the job or profession in question than for evidence of value-added learning. Think about heart surgeons, structural engineers, and automobile brake component assemblers to understand this absolute-learning perspective that demands a minimum measurable or observable level of knowledge and its targeted applications. It's also arguable that even the civic-good outcomes of a higher education should meet some measurable, non-relative level of outcomes represented, for example, by the fluencies and competencies embedded in the Collegiate Learning Assessment and other "normable" assessments of critical and analytical thinking and expression. Competencies and outcomes, whether for the workforce and professions or for citizenship, can be benchmarked, provided that third-party assessments are used. Grades given by an individual instructor teaching a course section cannot.
The Internet is pulling us away from the seat-time model of instructional delivery. Why not take the next step and move away from the instructor-graded credit hour as the currency of the academic realm. Should not a college degree signify readiness for a skilled job or profession and also, in many cases, informed, benevolent citizenship?
The "gradeless" and "courseless" Ph.D. in Leadership and Change at Antioch University is an example that takes this idea to an interesting level that stops short of any single third-party assessment of learning outcomes, but includes verification of outcomes and competencies by external scholars and practitioners in the student's field. The program, led by Professor Laurien Alexandre and started with support from Professor Al Guskin (as former Antioch Chancellor), takes advantage of technology not only for the convenience of its students and faculty, but also to redesign learning activities to meet the needs of individual students and to situate those learning activities in a working environment in which graduates will practice much of what they learned in the program.
Could not this and other technology-enabled flexible, courseless, outcome-oriented program models:
- obviate the need for courses and grades,
- apportion the responsibility for judging learning outcomes between internal teachers and external scholars, mentors, and assessment instruments,
- support individualized learning plans in a medium in which access to learning resources, human communication, and, thus, collaboration and mentoring are amplified by the flexibility of time-shifted (asynchronous) self-service,
- reduce the capital costs of teaching and learning,
- permit individually accelerated degree completion within a realistic time-to-degree target,
- improve student commitment and success rates, and
- reduce the per-graduate cost of offering instructor-mentored degree programs?
We need more innovations along the lines of the four-year old Antioch Ph.D. in Leadership and Change, and we need them at the undergraduate level, not just the graduate level. We especially need them in STEM and other critical fields in which the supply of graduates is not keeping pace with demand and in which course grades may be a weaker proxy than independently confirmed outcome-based assessments for predicting the practicing mastery level of a student.