Assessment and Philosophy Courses

Assessment and Philosophy Courses

Most of the discussions regarding “assessment” are fine examples of exactly what we do not want to see college producing: vague and uniform truisms, hooked up with measures so meaningless as to guarantee that nothing will ever change. It is the deadened life of the bureaucratic mind. But imagine, as an alternative, academics charting the careers of students who have turned out to be really interesting, and trying to figure out what really happened, and to what extent their own courses or programs can take any credit for it. Undoubtedly, there never will be any sure-fire formula. But we might be able to collect a range of good practices, interesting ideas, experiments to try, as well as some solid critiques of what can stultify a college career.

That’s Charlie Huenemann (Utah State), who, like many of us, has to deal with “learning outcomes” and “assessment”: figuring out what students who’ve attended the school should be able to do, and how to measure how well the school is doing at helping students achieve these goals. In his view, the aim of college is for students to develop “interesting minds.” I am sympathetic with that — I remind my students to take advantage of college because it is probably the last time they will be surrounded by people whose job it is to make them more interesting people. However, since the interestingness of graduates is not readily quantifiable, and since the demand for quantitative assessment is not likely to go away, there remains the question of how colleges and universities should go about assessing courses.

A current trend is for schools to require that certain “learning outcomes” orient courses. Courses are then assessed by how well students are able to demonstrate that they’ve met the learning outcomes. Yet both the specification of the outcomes and their assessment seem, for various reasons, problematic. What should the learning outcomes of a philosophy course be? And by what means, realistically, should colleges and universities check to see whether they’ve been met? Have you had good experiences with assessment systems that might serve, in part or whole, as models for the rest of us? Or are there better ways to handle the demand for accountability that seems to be motivating the drive towards assessment?

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