A Liberal Education – Part I – What Did a Student Do in College?

I had occasion to revisit a letter I wrote to Stanford University as it was considering changing the undergraduate curriculum.  The letter can be found here and at the end of this post.  I previously commented on  it here.  This time I was struck by my emphasis on accomplishment not credentials and the breadth of thinking tools such an education could provide.  I will address the thinking tool list in part II.

Conventional wisdom has that a college diploma is the entry ticket to the world of white-collar employment but from then on so-called “deliverables” are what matter, that is, what a person has accomplished in the work or academic world determines later promotions, not any particular college credential.

So what does a college diploma tell a prospective employer? It says that a person had the perseverance to reach a long-term goal, could navigate a system with complicated rules and picked up a bit of difficult to specify skills and knowledge.  What I suggested would have made the diploma represent a richer set of accomplishments.  Graduates would have done many different tasks at a high level with tangible proof of their successes.

I have always hesitated to say that my students know this or that mathematical concepts or skill.  The best I can say is that they worked problems that conventionally tested their skills at such and such a time and such and such a place at such and such a performance level.  Will they retain the skills for more than a week or a month?  Will they see the application of their new skills in a different context?  Exactly what new circuitry/chemistry is in their brains? The best I can say (in the past tense) is “This is what they generally knew at the time of their final examination.”  In contrast, I will never forget a good student of mine who thanked me for assigning a project that she could be proud of working on and writing up.

Higher education is glacially moving in this direction.  The image of a college student portfolio (eportfolio) is shining in the distance.  I see two types of portfolios.  One would be a record of a student’s intellectual growth over their years in college – a so-called value-added record.  This would be useful to a student if only to get a sense of their personal growth but also to the college as documentation of its efficacy.  Another type of portfolio would contain a student’s best work – evidence that they, indeed, have performed many complex tasks at a high level – projects that analyzed data parsed systems, created beauty, improved their physical selves and all the other accomplishments I listed.

When students know they are assembling such a portfolio they will be more serious about their education and will a set of “deliverables” to brag about as they search for work.

Letter to Stanford on Undergraduate Curriculum

Two questions that a high school senior should be asking their prospective colleges are “What will I be doing?” and “Will I be challenged?” Many assessments of the quality of an undergraduate education attempt to measure the particular skills, knowledge and attitudes that a graduating senior has acquired using some type of an exit test.  However no such test would be taken seriously by college students unless the results had a direct bearing on their grades or their graduation status and in any event the political realities of our educational system makes exit testing very unlikely.

As a second best alternative I would like to suggest that the undergraduate curriculum be built around the idea that by graduation a student will have done a series of complex activities.    A list of these activities or better yet a portfolio of evidence would be more impressive to employers and to professional and grad schools than a student’s overall GPA and a transcript of courses taken.  Of course each undergraduate institution would determine the acceptable quality of each endeavor and alternatives for people unable to perform a particular task.  I suggest the following.

By graduation, the student will have

Been a member of a team
Lead a team
Drawn conclusions from a complex set of data
Explored an entity or process using the tools of systems analysis
Designed and created something with their hands
Learned a coordinated physical activity
Spent one hundred hours doing community service
Lived in a foreign culture
Programmed a computer
Studied at least one particular field of study sufficiently to

Write a ten page paper relating themselves and their goals to the breadth of the field of study
Write a forty page paper investigating a specific aspect of the field of study
Written a work of fiction
Developed budgets for a 20 year old single person, a 40 year old married family and a 70 year old couple
Given a twenty minute speech
Debated a political point
Created and pursued a new idea
Applied the methods of the social science disciplines
Critiqued  a performance, a work of fiction, a work of nonfiction and a work of fine art
Conceived of a hypothesis and use the scientific method to prove or disprove it
Drawn conclusions from the financial statement of a company

This list is suggestive of the important aspects of an undergraduate education though it is certainly missing some important activities and is somewhat imprecise.  Students need a breadth of active experiences and they need to explore other aspects of the human endeavor other than the purely academic.  Most importantly an undergraduate education needs to ensure that students have done a set of challenging tasks and grown thereby.

There is a view that when our “best and brightest” get into an elite school like Stanford, they rest on their laurels and enjoy the benefits of grade inflation.  It is very important that Stanford challenge its students at a level commensurate with their abilities.

Jim Hatton

Southern Oregon University

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About jrh794

I am a sixty-five year old math instructor at Southern Oregon University. I taught at the College of the Siskiyous in Weed California for twenty-six years. Prior to that I worked as a computer programmer, carpenter and in various other jobs. I graduated from Rice University in 1967 and have a MS in Operations Research from Stanford. In the past I have hand-built a stone house and taken long solo bicycle tours. Now I ride my mountain bike and play golf for recreation.
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