Back to top

CAUT Bulletin Archives

March 2008

Bridging Academe's Assessment Divide

By Ronald Glasberg
An overemphasis on quantification in scholarship and pedagogy needs to be counterbalanced with an awareness of the principle of quality, says Ronald Glasberg.
An overemphasis on quantification in scholarship and pedagogy needs to be counterbalanced with an awareness of the principle of quality, says Ronald Glasberg.
After 27 years of university teaching in three different provinces, I would like to offer some observations on what I consider to be a dangerous trend — that of an increasingly obsessive emphasis on quantification in the areas of faculty and student assessment. “Cult” may not be too strong a term when one considers how rigidly faculty are assessed on number of publications produced in any given reporting period and how fearful administrators and some faculty become if the number of A-level grades threatens to upset that mysterious idol of the “bell curve.”

I speak from a humanities background, and I cannot gauge how my colleagues in the sciences and social sciences may respond to my concerns. In any case, I would suggest that an overemphasis on quantification in scholarship and pedagogy needs to be counterbalanced with an awareness of the principle of quality in both of these areas.

A qualitative impact assessment is not focused on quantity of publications produced but rather on how scholarship may make a difference in the life, not only of the discipline, but also of society at large. Qualitative pedagogy is less concerned with bell curve standards than with how a university teacher has, in the context of presenting his or her material, altered the lives of students by transforming them in such a way that a love of learning has been kindled, curiosity aroused, a sense of wonder instilled, etc.

Given that qualitatively based pedagogy is likely to be more engaging than the quantitative, there should be no surprise if the grade spectrum shifts towards the higher end of the scale — not because the standards are more lax, but because the students are more inspired.

Turning first to the area of scholarship, there might appear to be nothing wrong with an emphasis on quantitative productivity. After all, is not this kind of standard appropriate to the economy as a whole? However, while it is easier to base productivity on number of publications, such an emphasis might well undermine the possibilities of creating works that, in view of their depth and potential impact, may embody productivity at a very different level — the level of making a significant difference in our world.

In view of the length of time it might take to generate such consciousness-altering works of scholarship, what is wrong with having assessment committees examine as yet unpublished material and consider its “breakthrough” potential?

Of course, whenever such new directions are being taken, there is the concomitant risk that publication may never be forthcoming. Indeed, the greater the potential “paradigm shifts,” the greater the risk of failure or of outright resistance from the more conservative members of the academy. However, should the gamble pay off, then the department/faculty/university can bask in the glory of having underwritten a bold and perhaps culturally transformative innovation in scholarship.

If the gamble does not pay off, then the department/faculty/university can take some solace in having supported a noble and courageous effort. One can only wonder about what might be accomplished in a scholarly environment not simply geared to directing academics along the safe road, where what is lacking in qualitative impact is made up for in quantitative bulk.

Furthermore, just as qualitatively oriented scholarship may be associated with a risk worth taking, such is also the case with qualitatively oriented university pedagogy. Here the risk is associated with a loss of control — a situation in which the instructor invites students to seek their own truth via a personal engagement with the material under study. In other words, the control associated with making students jump through hoops is replaced by the instructor monitoring how well students tackle learning projects constructed by instructor-student interaction and changing as the level of student awareness evolves.

In such a pedagogical environment a bell curve outcome is highly unlikely. Marks will naturally move in the direction feared by the die-hard opponents of grade inflation, for it is difficult to imagine a host of inspired students pulling in nothing but Cs.

I can almost hear a chorus of criticisms framed by my colleagues, especially those whose academic home is in the hard sciences or the professional faculties. While pragmatic concerns are certainly legitimate, matters of principle should be addressed at the outset. Here the main pedagogical principle revolves around the consequences of giving up control and allowing students to take advantage of what many of my colleagues would no doubt call a lax and overly permissive system.

In the name of qualitative pedagogy I appear to be challenging the principle of standards. However, many of these so-called standards are false — false to students as well as faculty. We are all too familiar with students who have memorized a text, regurgitated it on an exam and then promptly forgotten almost everything they managed to cram into their short-term memories for the sake of passing the course. They get their Cs, earn their degrees and then move on.

Those who worked harder and get their well deserved As can, if they so wish, go to grad school, become profs, and develop into facilitators of this tiresome cycle. Everyone appears to get what they want, and all’s well with the world.

But all is not well with the world. Those who jumped through the hoops by barely adequate regurgitation techniques have not risen to any meaningful standard either in their eyes or those of their instructors. Those university teachers who respond by saying the hoop-jumpers have made their choice and could have opted for a more meaningful level of engagement with the course material do have a point. However, the net result in the name of standards maintenance is the granting of degrees to those who have merely jumped through the hoops. Such students, not to mention many of their instructors, often become cynical about the claims of higher education. More important, an opportunity to touch their hearts and minds has been lost.

Despite the difficulties of organizing and conducting a qualitatively oriented class, the risk seems worth taking. To make this point more clearly, let us consider two pedagogical scenarios. The first is a class with a bell curved grade outcome where the majority of students achieve an acceptable level of proficiency with the facts, concepts and methodologies of a given area of study but are not particularly engaged by the material and would likely forget most of it within a matter of weeks. The second is a class with marks skewed toward the higher end of the grade spectrum — a class where most students are transformed by a non-standardized pedagogy that encourages them to take from the class ideas and experiences which will stay with them for the rest of their lives.

As a university instructor, which of the two classes would you prefer to teach? Which of the two is the most beneficial to the students and to society at large?

Of course, in the best of all possible worlds, a judicious combination of the two pedagogical emphases might be salutary. But if a choice must be made, then surely those classes which address themselves to the very nature of reality along with the most important life questions should be allowed to avail themselves of non-standardized, engaging and, I daresay, inspiring pedagogies.

When the life of the university becomes nothing more than a game defined by quantitative score-keeping, then faculty and students are likely to adopt a complacent cynicism and focus on playing that game. Whatever good might come from such an academic environment is fatally compromised by an inevitable corruption of the human spirit and the soul of the university can only become sadly impoverished.

Finally, if the ultimate health of our society, if not our very civilization, depends on the depth of public discourse addressed to fundamental life questions, then the university will make but a poor contribution if too many of its members are hopelessly enthralled by the cult of the quantitative.

Ronald Glasberg is a professor of communication and culture at the University of Calgary.

The views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily CAUT.

Commentary: CAUT welcomes articles between 800 and 1,500 words on contemporary issues directly related to post-secondary education. Articles should not deal with personal grievance cases nor with purely local issues. They should not be libellous or defamatory, abusive of individuals or groups, and should not make unsubstantiated allegations. They should be objective and on a political rather than a personal subject. A commentary is an opinion and not a “life story.” First person is not normally used. Articles may be in English or French, but will not be translated. Publication is at the sole discretion of CAUT. Commentary authors will be contacted only if their articles are accepted for publication. Commentary submissions should be sent to Liza Duhaime.

Les opinions exprimées sont celles des auteurs et ne reflètent pas nécessairement la position officielle de l’ACPPU.

Commentaires destinés à la rubrique Tribune libre : L’ACPPU invite les lecteurs à soumettre des articles de 800 à 1 500 mots qui portent sur des questions d’actualité liées directement à l’enseignement postsecondaire. Les articles ne doivent traiter ni de dossiers de griefs particuliers ni de questions d’intérêt strictement local. Ils ne doivent pas comporter des allégations non fondées ni des propos diffamants, calomniateurs ou offensants envers des personnes ou des groupes. Les articles doivent être empreints d’une objectivité totale et aborder des sujets de nature politique plutôt que personnelle. Un commentaire est avant tout l’expression d’une opinion et non pas le « récit d’une vie ». Il convient normalement de le formuler à la première personne. Les articles peuvent être soumis en français ou en anglais, mais ils ne seront pas traduits. L'ACPPU se réserve le droit de choisir les articles qui seront publiés. La rédaction ne communiquera avec les auteurs de commentaires que si elle décide de publier leurs articles. Les commentaires doivent être envoyés à Liza Duhaime.