The Bottom Line

I’m happily working my way through the reading assignments for the WASC Assessment Leadership Academy that I am participating in (and finding all sorts of goodies to share with my colleagues), and this paragraph from Mary J. Allen’s book Assessing Academic Programs in Higher Education (2004) reminded me why I care so much about assessment — because it’s (once again) about informing teaching and learning:

Earlier teaching models, primarily based on delivering content through textbooks and lecturing, assumed that students learn through listening, reading, and independent work. Typical grading practices, based on grading on a curve, frequently put students into competition with each other, discouraging student collaboration. More recent conceptions of learning stress that students construct knowledge by integrating new learning into what they already know. Learning is viewed as a cognitive and social process in which students construct meaning through reflection and through their interactions with faculty, fellow students, and others. This approach involves expanded use of active learning pedagogies, such as collaborative and cooperative learning, problem-based learning, and community service learning. Our ability to meet the educational needs of our diverse student body depends on developing an expanded repertoire of pedagogical strategies with demonstrated effectiveness, and assessment helps us identify these strategies. (p. 3)

And then (as if that wasn’t enough of a Rah! Rah! for educators), Allen identifies the bottom line:

The bottom line for assessment is student learning (p. 6) . . . . Just as the bottom line in business is the generation of profit, the bottom line in higher education is the generation of learning. (p.19)

Generating learning. That’s a really great bottom line.


Credit for Experience or Learning? Learning, Please!

I have written already about Walmart’s PLA program, so I am not going to get my knickers in a twist again about *that* topic.

  • My first 2 cents Here
  • My next 2 cents Here

My 2 cents: Thanks for Kiribati on Picasa for making this image available.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning announced that Pam Tate, the President of CAEL, was interviewed on NPR´s show Here and Now about the use of prior learning assessment nationwide. According to the announcement, “She also commented on the new relationship between the for-profit online school, American Public University, and Walmart to offer academic credit to employees based on what they learn on the job.” Listen Here:

Here and Now

Here at Marylhurst, we intentionally keep our PLA program pretty darn rigorous. Students have to demonstrate that they have the college-level learning, based on specific course outcomes. It’s not an “easier” way to earn credits; it is often, however, a very rewarding way to earn credit.  As I’ve mentioned previously, it’s about so much more than credit. (It also saves our students time and money — both pretty valuable resources for busy adult learners!)

So again, here are links to Marylhurst’s PLA students talking about their experiences — as you will hear from them, the credit is quite often the icing on the cake:

A No-Brainer

A Human Brain: Thanks to EUSKALANATO on Flickr for making this image available.

I am reading a book right now recommended by a friend called How We Decide, by Jonah Lehrer.  She recommended this to me when I needed to make a decision and had consulted her; her statement to me was, “You actually already know the answer. Now you’re just trying to rationalize it.” And then she loaned me this book.

I have only read the first few chapters, and what I am learning is that we don’t yet know a lot about how our brains all work (“tip of the iceberg,” as one neuroscientist observed) , but we do know that they can work in amazing ways and that we should pay attention to what we do know.

Several years ago, I attended a conference about teaching and learning, and one idea that I took away was that “perfect practice makes perfect.” I have always been a skeptic of “perfect” (who needs that pressure?),  but the idea is that if you practice something incorrectly, it will likely become lodged in your brain incorrectly. And if you practice it correctly, it will likely become lodged in your brain correctly. Kind of a no-brainer (no pun intended), but for an educator, it’s a neat idea to keep in mind and I apply the idea in all sorts of ways with my students.

Lehrer’s book echoes a slightly different take on this idea, though. He tells the story of Bill Robertie, a champion backgammon player. As Lehrer points out, Robertie didn’t become a world champion by playing a lot of backgammon: “It’s not the quantity of practice, it’s the quality.” By this he doesn’t mean practicing perfectly; instead, he argues for critically reflecting on the errors.

According to Robertie, the most effective way to get better is to focus on your mistakes. In other words, you need to consciously consider the errors being internalized. . . Expertise is simply the wisdom that emerges from cellular error. Mistakes aren’t things to be discouraged. On the contrary, they should be cultivated and carefully investigated. (p. 51)

I’ve argued for learning from our mistakes before and I’ve shared my All Time Favorite Quote that “reflection is the process by which experience is turned into learning” (Boud, Keogh, & Walker, 1985). Robertie has argued for the same thing, and Lehrer explains the neuroscience that makes it all work. Basically:

If you want to be good at something, practice it. And when you mess up, analyze the mistakes and learn from them.

That, in a nutshell, is possibly all you may need to know about brain science (or at least all you need to know to be a PLA writer). Let your dopamine neurons and anterior cingulate cortex do the work that they are supposed to: that’s what they do best, for they’ve been practicing it, “perfectly,” for a very long time.


Boud, D., Keogh, R., and Walker, D. (1985). Reflection: Turning experience into learning. Kogan Page: London.

My Third And Final Major Was English

David Brooks has written an Op-Ed piece in The New York Times called History for Dollars in which he advocates for studying the humanities, and it has me nogging.

Thanks to quinn.anya on Flickr for making this image available.

Brooks argues that studying the humanities will make a person more employable because they will be able to read and write well, will deeply understand human emotion, can think analogically, and can “befriend” what he calls “The Big Shaggy,” behaviors and phenomena that are difficult to explain. Of the latter, Brooks writes:

The observant person goes through life asking: Where did that come from? Why did he or she act that way? The answers are hard to come by because the behavior emanates from somewhere deep inside The Big Shaggy.

Technical knowledge stops at the outer edge. If you spend your life riding the links of the Internet, you probably won’t get too far into The Big Shaggy either, because the fast, effortless prose of blogging (and journalism) lacks the heft to get you deep below.

But over the centuries, there have been rare and strange people who possessed the skill of taking the upheavals of thought that emanate from The Big Shaggy and representing them in the form of story, music, myth, painting, liturgy, architecture, sculpture, landscape and speech. These men and women developed languages that help us understand these yearnings and also educate and mold them. They left rich veins of emotional knowledge that are the subjects of the humanities.

I object to his implication that blogs “lack the heft” of critical thought and inquiry, but I have to agree with almost every other proposition of his editorial. Let me tell you why.

My first major in college was journalism. I had spent the previous 3 years in high school tirelessly advocating for Freedom Of The Press and a separation of advertising and editorial (my main objective being to convince the school administrators that placing a Planned Parenthood ad in the student newspaper paper was not an endorsement for having sex). It made perfect sense that I would be a journalism major: I had prior experience on the newspaper and yearbook, passion, and it could be practical. I could get a job.

My second major was speech pathology and audiology. I changed it from journalism about a month into college because I decided I wanted to try to do something different from what I had been doing. It wasn’t an analytical decision at the time; it was more like wanderlust meets “I want to be employable after graduation.”

I liked this new major because I was learning in multiple disciplines: anatomy, language development and linguistics, psychology, neurology, etc. We also got to look at cadavers, which was scary and horrifying and amazing, all at the same time. However, in my first session in the speech clinic, when a distraught but forceful mother of a child with a bilateral lisp was insistent that we “FIX HIM!!!” in time for a speech he had to give at his church, my clinical supervisor turned to me and said, “Welcome to your future.” An off-the-cuff comment, but I listened.

My third and final major was English because I liked to write and I liked to read, and I didn’t want to spend time taking courses that I didn’t like. I temporarily set aside my pragmatic paycheck-oriented concerns and decided to focus on learning. And with that came great freedom and deep engagement and, as Brooks argues and I fully believe, marketability.

I have applied lessons from my English courses — from all of those Australian novels and Middle English Prologues and poems and essays and tree structures and Latin roots —  to every aspect of my work. From supervising and supporting employees, to preparing and monitoring budgets, to writing grants, to giving presentations to friendly and challenging audiences, to teaching and mentoring, to learning new computer programs or programming my voice mail, to communicating with various stakeholders and advocating with fierce grace, I call upon my English major skills and capacities of mind each and every day.

Brooks implies that there is money associated with a humanities education; I suspect that might be true (it has not been, for me). But what I DO have is compassion, creativity, energy, communication, and, in general, happiness with what I can and like to do.

My third and final major was English.  And as for The Big Shaggy? I’ll continue to nog on it, with heft (eh hem!), because, as Brooks asks:

…doesn’t it make sense to spend some time in the company of these languages — learning to feel different emotions, rehearsing different passions, experiencing different sacred rituals and learning to see in different ways?

Yes. Yes it does.

This Gives Me The HeeBeeJeeBee’s

Image borrowed from and probably copyrighted by BusinessWeek.

Wal-Mart has announced that it is going to offer its workers support for a college degree program. Ordinarily, most of us in higher ed would say “Great! More employers should recognize that helping their employees pay for and earn a degree is an investment; it is a Good Thing to do for the employee and for the company! No brainer, baby!”

But so far, there’s not been the most positive buzz about this in the higher education channels.  For one thing, the whole deal seems of questionable business ethics and very questionable educational quality. I like this summary of issues from the blog Confessions of a Community College Dean – with this one note that echoes my own concerns from a PLA perspective:

– The real eyebrow-raiser for me was the offer of academic credits for Wal-Mart work experience. Apparently, the ethics training Wal-Mart provides its employees will form the basis for some academic credits. I’ll repeat that for emphasis. The ethics training conducted by Wal-Mart will be given academic credit. Just let that one sink in for a few minutes.

The New York Times article includes this example:

For instance, a department-level manager, who receives training from Wal-Mart in areas like pricing, inventory management and ethics, would be eligible for 24 on-the-job credits, at no charge, toward a 61-credit associates’ degree. A cashier would be eligible for six credits toward a 61-credit associate’s degree or a 120-credit bachelor’s degree.

What is all this “credit for experience” stuff? It’s PLA (or maybe internships, or at the very least “experiential education”), applied in TERRIBLE ways.

The Council for Adult and Experiential Learning’s standards for PLA (see Assessing Learning: Standards, Principles & Procedures, second edition – by Morry Fiddler, Catherine Marienau, and Urban Whitaker) state that credit cannot be earned for experience, but for academic (meaning linked to the academic theory), college-level learning.


Not experience.

There is a difference, people!

There is no college course in “How Laura raised her children,” but there are college courses in, for example, Sociology of the Family or Living and Learning With Your Toddler (I should take this course given my own learning curve).

Likewise, is there going to be a college-level course called “How Wal-Mart manages its inventory?” That would likely not be broadly applicable or generalizable, even if it is based on someone’s (Sam Walton’s) theory of inventory management.  What about Advanced Inventory Theory instead? Oh look – there’s an actual textbook (several, in fact), and check out the course description. Sounds like a college course, to me:

This course will provide an in-depth study of classical models for inventory management and their extensions. We will study both deterministic and stochastic inventory models, with more emphasis on the latter. Although many of the topics we will cover are of great interest to managers, our focus will be not on practice but on theory.

Something makes me doubt that Wal-Mart’s own employee training programs and the experience their employees gain is actually “college-level” learning, grounded in academic theory.

I have no doubt that there are high quality, theoretically grounded employee training programs out there. But to automatically provide 24 credits, at no charge, for “work experience” is oh-so-problematic. Where is the learning? I am having a hard time seeing it.

As I said, this whole thing gives me the heebeejeebees! (Maybe Wal-Mart will sell me a salve for this condition, but of course, only if it’s in stock.)

Installment #9: What My Toddler Has Taught Me About Adult Learning

In this day and age, learning requires becoming and being comfortable with ambiguity and finding our way through a tunnel in which the end may not be in sight (or, in fact, in which there may not be an end).

I know there's a way through this -- I just don't know what it is yet!

In his book Learning as a Way of Being, Peter Vaill calls these conditions of learning “permanent white water”:

Since turbulent conditions appear everywhere and pervade our lives in both time and space, learning in permanent white water conditions is and will continue to be a constant way of life for all of us — thus the phrase learning as a way of being … Permanent white water is felt — as confusion and loss of direction and control. (pp. 42-23)

My own experience writing my dissertation was about finding my way through my topic to make sense of it — the process of doing it is how I made meaning of what I wanted to know. Many times I was lost, and it was not easy. It took a long time. I cried (once). (Ok, more than once.) But I worked through it.

Mac knows all this – he works through this tunnel or a similar metaphorical one each and every day! However, because he is relatively new to the world, he doesn’t have to contend with the challenges that we “older” learners have, specifically, as Vaill reminds us, that our prior learning may need updating:

What happens to so many of us, of course, is that we lose freshness and openness of perception as our learning accumulates and accretes, as we come to see ourselves as knowing a lot. . . We are all deeply programmed to believe that learning is a process of “getting it right” . . . [but] permanent white water thus makes perpetual beginners of us all.  Almost nothing we have learned is immune from challenge and change, which means we had better be prepared to undergo the sometimes painful process of admitting that much of our past learning is obsolete, and returning to the beginner mode. (pp. 80 – 81)

But – what has Mac taught me about being in the beginner mode?

Learning can be fun!