Professor accountability sounds good but won’t work

Prof. Pettigrew: You’ll just need to trust us.
Sept. 24/2012 - Guelph University, Guelph, Ontario. "MATH*1030 Business Mathematics", taught by Prof. Jeremy Balka in the Dept. of Maths & Stats has 400 students present during lecture.
A math lecture at the University of Guelph (Jessica Darmanin)

The most attractive and least practical idea in the world of Canadian universities is the notion that universities should be accountable for what students are actually learning.

After all, if taxpayers are funding universities, shouldn’t they have some assurances that students are actually learning what they are supposed to be learning? For that matter, if parents are footing a big part of the bill, shouldn’t they have some assurances too? And what about students? If they are trying to build a future based on a university degree, why can’t they guarantee a potential employer that they have some real skills?

When it comes to learning, are we just supposed to take professors’ words for it?

I encounter such arguments frequently, most recently in this piece by Maureen Mancuso. Mancuso quite rightly notes that it is silly and reductive to see university education merely as an investment, but wonders, nevertheless, why we can’t seek some changes to make us more accountable.

The devil, as usual, is in the details. Suppose we could document exactly what students have gained from their educations. What would that look like? Mancuso offers the following example:

transcript designations that identify courses which are particularly writing- or research- or numeracy-intensive offer a more transparent view of just what a student gained by achieving a good mark.

The problem is that such designations would offer no such thing. They would only indicate what students were supposed to have learned. There is no guarantee that the professor in the writing-intensive course actually required a lot of writing, or, if he did, that he held his students to a particularly high standard. And let’s say he did, there is no way of knowing whether or not the student cheated his way through the class.

The only way to evaluate actual student learning would be to devise a massive series of tests that students would take upon graduation. But what kind of monstrous bureaucracy would be required to create, administer, and grade every student in every subject at every university in Canada? Moreover, if such a test were required to graduate, it would be an unconscionable violation of academic freedom and of university integrity. Why? Because if the Department of Educational Accountability said you hadn’t passed, they would essentially be over-ruling a whole slate of professors at the university. And then what’s the point of having universities in the first place?

In any case, secondary schools have or have tried such tests to measure outcomes and it hasn’t worked. Students still come to university with few if any of the thinking skills they should have learned in high school.

The only way to meaningfully make universities accountable is not via outcomes but, to use a term Mancuso rejects, inputs. But inputs need not be restricted to the number of hours a student spends in class (a “metric” Mancuso rejects). We can, instead, focus on ensuring that faculty members are well qualified, have a deep love of teaching and learning, and encouraged to hold students to high standards. This would mean testing of course, but testing in the programs themselves, by the actual professors, not by a government accountability squad.

Take students who are eager to learn and send them to a place filled with smart, knowledgable people who love to teach: learning will happen.

And you’ll have to take my word for it.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section, on Twitter @maconcampus or on Facebook.