Spoiler alert: I’m going to answer my own question with a resounding “YES”. Now that you know where I’m going with this…
I had originally considered reflecting generally on the “new” trend I’ve noticed in post-secondary institutions to market science education in particular as a means to a practical end, rather than a goal and achievement unto itself. It would seem that claims for a given degree (and in some cases a particular course) of concrete, specific, practical applications are a reasonably widespread approach to increasing interest (and therefore enrollment) in a particular program or course. Promises of future well-paid employment being the payoff for an education in the sciences seem to be overriding the touted ideals of purely academic education. Turns out that I’m not alone in perceiving this trend, either; in Canada overall there is a current trend toward students pursuing specific credentials (AUCC, 2011), and toward universities in particular shifting their focus to specifically emphasize the employability of their graduates (summarized in Regehr, 2013).
But rather than discuss whether an alternative approach should be taken, i.e. whether we should consider the development of cognitive skills a desirable outcome worthy of serious consideration, I began wondering whether such an approach could be taken, at a practical level. That is to say: is a process like “learning to learn” actually achievable in adulthood through science education? And do we have any way to quantify this sort of skill well enough to clearly demonstrate a change in competency with education?
Students, educators, and policy-maker weigh such lofty and somewhat abstract goals as ‘bettering oneself’, ‘expanding your horizons’, and of course the oft-repeated ‘learning to learn’ against the more concrete, practical realities of day-to-day life when determining their preferred course of action. The time, energy, and physical and mental resources that any person has available for pursuits are limited, and so each person must come up with some sort of criteria for determining whether a given pursuit – in this case, science education – is worth spending resources on. How can an individual determine whether advancing their general education is a worthy pursuit? How can policy-makers decide whether to funnel money into programs that stress development of cognitive skills, or those that stress accumulation of practical knowledge?
For an extreme example of a particularly broad discrepancy between idealistic educators and practical-minded policy makers, I turned to several articles discussing the unique challenges faced by educators in correctional (i.e. prison) education systems (Spangenberg, 2004; Warner, 1998; Wright, 2004; Zaro, 2007). In such systems there is indeed at least one readily-measurable outcome that all parties concerned seem to agree upon as being desirable: reducing recidivism rates. But of course, when discussing Canadian universities offering education to a broader population of students, “recidivism” becomes less useful a measure. So is there some alternative measure that we can use to assess whether programs or courses are successfully improving the cognitive and metacognitive abilities of their students, without relying on behavioural skills? Can we reliably evaluate how students think, as opposed to what they can do? Educators in Canadian universities on the whole seem to declare that they do strive to teach students ‘how to learn’ and to improve their cognitive abilities, but also either don’t directly evaluate their success, or don’t do so reliably. As Clark, Trick, & Van Loon (2011) note:
All Canadian universities declare that they help students improve their critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing skills. But there is little identification of which parts of the curriculum do this, how actual learning is tested, and what remedial actions are taken when students do not meet well-defined standards.
Contrary to my own naive assumptions, though, this failing isn’t actually because of a complete lack of measurement standards existing. One assessment tool in current use is the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA). This test is designed to evaluate student’s skills in critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving, and communication, with the goal of summarizing whether a (specifically undergraduate university) course or program is improving these skills in their students (Klein, Benjamin, Shavelson, & Bolus, 2007). Noted problems with the current assessments include the shortage of program-specific learning outcomes, and the low response rates and biased samples that result from voluntary participation on the part of students and/or educators (Regehr, 2013). However, this should not stop educators from using such assessment tests, and further developing them. That cognitive and metacognitive skills can be more difficult to assess than specific procedural skills is no excuse for not assessing them at all! In the end, I would argue that science educators especially, who insist on evidence-based arguments from our students, have an obligation to insist on developing and using quantifiable measures of efficacy if we are to continue making claims of the benefits of broad-based academic education.
Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada. (2011). Trends in higher education: Volume 1 – Enrolment. Ottawa: AUCC. Retrieved from http://www.aucc.ca/media-room/publications/trends-in-higher-education-volume-1-enrolment/
Klein, S., Benjamin, R., Shavelson, R., & Bolus, R. (2007). The collegiate learning assessment: Facts and fantasies. Evaluation Review, 31, 415-439. doi: 10.1177/0193841X07303318.
Regehr, C. (2013). Trends in higher education in Canada and implications for social work education. Social Work Education: The International Journal. 32(6), 700-714. doi: 10.1080/02615479.2013.785798.
Spangenberg, G. (2004). Current issues in correctional education: A compilation and discussion. Washington, DC: Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy. Retrieved from http://www.caalusa.org/correct_ed_paper.pdf
Warner, K. (1998). The “prisoners are people” perspective – and the problems of promoting learning where this outlook is rejected. Journal of Correctional Eduction, 49(3), 118-132. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23292078
Wright, R. L. (2004). You were hired to teach! Ideological struggle, education, and teacher burnout at the new prison for women. The Qualitative Report, 9(4), 630-651. Retrieved from http://www.nova.edu/ssss/QR/QR9-4/wright.pdf
Zaro, D. (2007). Teaching strategies for the self-actualized correctional educator: The inside person vs. the outside person. Journal of Correctional Education, 58(1), 27-44. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/23282612