Tag Archives: Learning Outcomes

Are Grades and Tests the Best Way to Measure Learning?

The other week in class, I was speaking with a classmate about grades and learning. We were opining about how sometimes, getting the right answer (on an assignment) shouldn’t necessarily be the goal of the assignment. That is, shouldn’t learning be the goal? Shouldn’t improving one’s storehouse of wisdom be the goal? Shouldn’t understanding be the goal?

Of course, that is the intention with these assignments — that one will learn/understand the material. After having spent (almost) an entire semester on the other side of the classroom, I certainly have [some] empathy for teachers and their assignments. While I don’t have to report to a department chair, I understand that in order to measure students, there needs to be something measurable and I understand that tests/assignments have become the easy way of doing this. Should this be acceptable, though?

I recently came across an interesting article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that addresses this issue:

According to this view, the nature of teaching and learning should be measured instead of relying solely on an outcome like a grade or a test. Students should be exposed to courses and assignments that require them to analyze information and apply it to new contexts, reflect on what they know, identify what they still need to learn, and sort through contradictory arguments.

Such opportunities are described in research literature as “deep approaches to learning.” They figure prominently in Thursday’s release of data from the National Survey of Student Engagement. While Nessie, as the survey is known, has long sought data on those practices, this year’s report replicated and extended the previous year’s findings, which showed that participation in deep approaches tends to relate to other forms of engagement, like taking part in first-year learning communities and research projects.

This article has sparked a great deal of debate in the comments section, too. Here’s one comment that I found particularly on-point:

I do not want to be an apologist for the way things are, because it is always possible to improve our practices and in many respects we are responsible for the critical view the public have of us (honestly, it isn’t all the fault of right wing politicians with an anti-intellectual bent); however, higher ed adminstrators and the higher ed press have to stop treating each new study, each new innovation and each new utterance from some rich person suddenly interested in, but also dismissive of, higher ed (I’m looking at you Bill Gates) as the silver bullet  that is going to transform and save higher ed.  My head is not in the sand, I know higher ed (particularly public higher ed) is going through rough times but the panicked responses of the folks in charge is truly dismaying.


I once wrote about the need to shift towards Waldorf- & Montessori-like education. When I wrote this, I was thinking more about elementary and high school. I wonder — what should the model look like for college/university? Should it also be Waldorf- & Montessori-like? I don’t know, but it’s certainly a question worth asking.