making learning visible

Last week the CSU’s Institute for Teaching and Learning explored ways to make visible some of the hardest learning to assess.   Director Wayne Tikkanen brought in three teams of facilitators to help colleagues around the CSU and California Community Colleges assess GE proficiencies like written and oral communication, quantitative reasoning, critical thinking, and information literacy.

The stakes are high.  We tell our students and the public that this is the learning employers care about, and the difference between job training and college.  But we’re weak at the specifics, at explaining exactly what our graduates will be able to know and do after college that they couldn’t do before, regardless of what they major in.  So it can look like so much snake oil, and we’re left with one less explanation for why we cost so much.

I’d seen each of the three presentations before, but their approaches are more compelling in combination:

  Marc Chun, formerly of the CLA, led participants through an intuitive but rigorous model for customizing assignments to fill the gap between student proficiency at entry, and expected proficiency at the end of the course.  Performance tasks are designed to be open-ended and multi-dimensional, and leave visible trails of learning along the way, “artifacts” of student work that show emerging proficiency in both GE and the major.


Mary Allen, emerita professor of psychology at CSU Bakersfield, has helped over a hundred colleges and universities get systematic about learning outcomes assessment.  The strength is in her authoritative approach to creating rubrics.  She emphasizes calibration, the norming essential for inter-rater reliability.  You leave feeling like it’s possible to engineer rough agreement — even around judgments as abstract as these.


Maggie Beers and Ruth Cox have been developing their approach to ePortfolios for years at San Francisco State University.  Students upload samples of their work and customize the sites with pictures, video, autobiographical essays and — vitally — the narrative text to explain which samples of their work they selected, and why.  Asking students to understand how they learn while they’re enrolled helps them keep learning on their own.

Across these three presentations, you could see where we’re heading:  colleges and universities will get more explicit about how routine assignments develop and document the essential learning of general education, faculty will get more systematic and consistent about how such learning is evaluated and recognized, and the records that result will be more nuanced, personalized, and portable than traditional transcripts.

Portability is important:  of the courses that have to count for transfer, most are in general education.  Out of fairness, GE performance tasks and calibrated evaluations have to follow the student from one institution to the next.  And LaGuardia Community College has demonstrated that students who use ePortoflios to personalize the records of their learning are less likely to drop out.

With all that in mind I called ePortfolio California‘s Tim Calhoon, whom I’d met a couple of years ago.  His group supports common standards of “interoperability” across platforms.  That is, my college is on TaskStream, your university uses a freebie customization of WordPress, but behind the scenes both use the same data structure and lexicon, so the student we share can carry her ePortfolio from me to you.  From our conversation it was clear that ePortfolio California faces a big job:  the very definition of ePortfolio is in such flux that different vendors approach the market with radically different assumptions and expectations about what even to include.  But the advocacy continues.

It was a sobering call, a reminder that despite mature technologies in some areas, others are still developing.  This is still mostly adumbration.

From the perspective of 20 years ago, smart phones were inevitable but not yet here:  first we needed better batteries, smaller components, and a national infrastructure to support more than the occasional car phone — all separate technologies, whose moment of ripening and convergence was hard to predict.  After last week, it feels clearer that we’re at a similar moment in higher ed.



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