A New Look at Educational Quality

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There have been a number of reports over the past several years that have questioned both the rigor and the efficacy of college educational practices. The book, Academically Adrift (2011), garnered international attention and painted a dismal picture of the current educational environment on most college campuses.

A new project entitled, College Educational Quality (CEQ), is being led by researchers at Teachers College at Columbia University and providing a different perspective. They have just published the results of their pilot study, and though it may be too early to draw too many conclusions, their approach to assessing quality is new and innovative.

The pilot study involved research on educational quality at two selective research institutions, one private and one public. The research team (graduate students) actually sat in on classes (more than 150 classroom observations) and studied curricula through the analysis of almost 150 syllabi. For the most part, the researchers observed classes and/or analyzed syllabi related to their own undergraduate majors.

Their assessment focused on two areas: academic rigor and teaching quality. Academic rigor involved:

-       The quality of cognitive complexity required (based on Bloom’s Taxonomy);

-       The amount of academic work (based on the research related to time on task and the quality of effort);

-       The standards and expectations assigned (based on widespread frameworks of standards and grade inflation).

Teaching quality involved:

-       Teaching in-depth subject matter and ideas;

-       Accessing and transforming prior knowledge;

-       Supporting learning.

What did they learn? In general, this study indicated that while there is room for improvement, the quality of education is better than often reported. Based on the research design, both institutions scored in the middle of the quality scale. In addition, there was no statistical difference between the scores at the two institutions.

More specifically, they found that most students attended classes (82%), instructors effectively introduced complex ideas, and the level of complexity was appropriate for college level learning. That’s the good news.

They also found that too many students were not actively engaged in the course material, expectations for class participation were low, and instructors too seldom connected the prior learning/knowledge of students with the current course.

Additional findings of interest included the correlation between academic rigor/teaching quality and longer classes (i.e., longer than an hour), smaller class sizes (i.e., less than 25) and student engagement (i.e., students asking questions and class discussions).

Those leading the CEQ effort readily admit that this is an initial study with limited data. But the criteria make sense to me and the initial results are hopeful. I will keep an eye on their subsequent research.

(As always, your comments and questions are welcome.)

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Guest Wednesday, 23 July 2014