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Survey proposes degrees may

Cognition across Campuses

We may log more hours in computer clusters than students at most other schools. But do we actually learn more than they do?

A recently completed study of the interaction between students, schools, and learning seems to say no.
The research, published in the book How College Affects Students, details a 30-year study of college students and what they actually learn at school. Part of the findings show that students who attend college have a wider range of intellectual experiences and better cognition than those students who do not continue on to higher education.

But what the findings don?t show are differences in how much students learn from school to school. That means, according to the research done by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini, students at various institutions like Ivy League and technical schools may not end up learning more than their peers at state and community colleges.

But is learning a quantifiable term? And is learning subjective to each individual student?
Junior business major Svetlana Sandler explains, ?I don?t think I would go to Carnegie Mellon if I thought I could get this type of education just anywhere.?

In response to questions such as these, a former president of Hobart and William Smith Colleges and Trinity College, Richard H. Hersh, follows up on the findings of this study in his recent article in The Atlantic Monthly, ?What Does College Teach??

He notes two explanations for why there may be no differences in learning across schools. One places the emphasis on students and individual achievement ? you only get out of the experience what you put into it. Hersh notes, ?It?s not just a perverse status-consciousness that makes higher education the only industry in which competitors are rated on the caliber of their customers rather than on their product.?

The other, more ?persuasive explanation,? explores the idea that current testing measures are not effective tools for evaluating student learning after the completion of a college degree. As of now, it may be that the tests are unable to detect distinctions between the amount students learn across college campuses.

Hersh and his colleagues, who form the Collegiate Learning Assessment Project, might have an answer to the dilemma of how to accurately quantify learning: a two part evaluative test administered at the end of one?s college education, including what he calls a ?performance task? exam as well as an analytical writing exam in which one must refute or support an imaginary argument.

Janet Stocks, assistant vice provost for education for Carnegie Mellon University, says it?s a complex situation.

?Different schools appeal to different students,? she says. ?There is an interaction between the institution and the students who choose that institution.?

Stocks, a sociologist, also believes ?it is difficult to accurately measure learning with any type of paper and pencil test. What we would hope is one learns how to learn. The student will know where to go to get information, and have some idea of the best way to start to solve a problem that there is not a recipe for.?

By instituting tests using ?value-added assessment,? Hersh warns that it ?tells us only how schools are doing in relation to their competitors, not what absolute standard of excellence they should be setting. Nor should it be allowed to crowd out other measures ? particularly affordability and equity ? that bear on how we judge a school?s quality.?

As Hersh points out, qualities such as small class sizes and alumni relations are all subjective measures that attract certain sets of people, but are schools and the students that use these standards to choose schools better off this way? According to the Collegiate Learning Assessment Project?s preliminary research, time and further testing will be the determining factors in answering this question.