A Student’s Assessment

An Academe student intern reacts to Stanley Katz’s essay.
By Joel Morgan Kearney

As the son of a professor, I grew up bombarded with university life. I experienced everything from those clichéd holiday parties where that one older scholar always ends up getting drunk, to students pestering my father at all times of day (and a few times on into the night) before a big test or term paper’s due date, to the bittersweet feeling when a fellow student and friend graduates and leaves for the wide world beyond.

These experiences and my four years as an undergraduate underlie my reading of Stanley Katz’s article, “Beyond Crude Measurement and Consumerism,” on college learning assessment tests and their potential applications. So does my negotiation of my education as someone who is physically impaired. For me, the time spent at university meant more than just receiving a scholarly education; it also meant regaining the self-confidence essential to independence.

I agree with Katz: much more is to be gained from an undergraduate, liberal arts education than merely “the capacity . . . to recite dates or to rehearse the arguments of the secondary materials assigned.” Though he only meant for this comment to address his own history department, it’s a convincing argument across the curriculum and beyond.

Classically, a liberal arts education was meant to bestow on students all the knowledge or skills a free man (in today’s inclusive language, “a free person”) needs to know to participate effectively as a socially and intellectually engaged citizen in a democratic state. It is not intended primarily to prepare students for a job, as we have professional schools that exist specifically for this purpose. The ultimate mission of any institution that offers a liberal arts education is to teach students how to write and communicate effectively, think complex thoughts logically, and perform other intellectual activities, such as attending a theatrical performance, participating in a public forum, or working in a political campaign.

My own liberal arts education was shaped by an event that occurred just before I was supposed to enroll. In summer 2003 I was in a terrible car accident that left me confined to a wheelchair and with poor use of my hands. Even though the wreck left my body crippled, my mind was still sharp. I was determined to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. After the accident, my father became set on my going to East Carolina University—where he was chair of the political science department—at least for a couple of years until I got a handle on college life and independent living. At the time I needed help with virtually every aspect of daily life. But my mother and I insisted that I be given the chance to live away from home. She and I both felt the time on my own would do wonders for my self-confidence. So away to Chapel Hill I went, even though it was a good two hours’ drive from our old house in Greenville.

When I left UNC–Chapel Hill last May with a bachelor’s degree in English, I was a completely different person from the one who had enrolled four years earlier. (Confessed English major that I am, I will note the lepidoptera-like metamorphosis I experienced as I emerged from in my dormitory chrysalis.)

From my undergraduate education, I acquired not only scholastic knowledge but much greater confidence in my own abilities, as well as a better ability to take care of myself. Most important, I was much more comfortable with myself and the differences that are part and parcel of my new life.

This growth and maturation was made possible solely by my experience at the university; no other situation I could dream up could balance the independence of having to manage my own life with the company and support I was able to find in the dorm in which I lived.

Looking back on the years I spent at Carolina and how they contributed to creating the person I am today, I have to affirm Katz’s opinion that the best method currently available to measure how much and what students are learning during their undergraduate years is formative assessment, which is defined by its goal of emphasizing the relationships between teacher and student and how well what was taught was shaped to meet the student’s learning needs. Clearly, the summation of what students learn and how they grow while in college “ought to amount to more than an accumulation of work in separate courses.”

My time at university taught me more about myself, my strengths, my weaknesses, and, most important, my determination, than I could have possibly gleaned only in the classroom. While I realize that my case presents an anomaly, I know many fellow students who were or are being transformed and given a new purpose in life by their years spent getting a bachelor’s degree.

Some educational administrators, along with a few professors with whom I have spoken over the years, don’t seem to understand the difficulty of measuring student learning in its entirety. A student’s academic performance (his or her grades) provides an inadequate overview of what that student learned in a particular class or while completing a particular major. I will use my own experience to illustrate my point again: though my marks were less than stellar (neither were they poor; they got me into the graduate school of my choice), I gained as much or more knowledge and understanding in the courses I took as many of my classmates and peers. Thesis papers and other sorts of capstone assignments completed during a student’s senior year, no matter how much research and preparation are involved, cannot realistically be expected to represent how much students have learned, either. The only skill that the writing of a paper can measure is just that, the ability to write a paper. I am not saying this because I am a poor writer but rather because I understand how small a slice of the university experience that paper will represent.

I cannot imagine a practical assessment method that would address all the lessons learned and experiences gained over the course of college, though that certainly does not mean such a method is inconceivable. To make a truly encompassing assessment of student learning and growth, one would have to account not only for the myriad experiences suggested earlier but also for the benefits of education over time.

Not all the benefits of the education and degree are always apparent at first; sometimes it can take losing a steady job and having to rejoin the workforce to understand the benefits that college has bestowed on you.

To formulate a method of assessment that would address all the lessons learned and experiences gained over the course of an undergraduate career, one would have to include far more than a student’s grades and extracurricular activities. In cases like mine, assessments should include achievements such as regaining a sense of independence, realizing one’s worth, and gaining confidence in one’s abilities. In other students’ cases, assessments might collect different information, but they all would show how we learned, matured, and became adults.

Joel Morgan Kearney was an intern for Academe during the summer. He is a master's student in the technical communication program at North Carolina State University. His e-mail is jmorgankearney@gmail.com.

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