Professor accountability sounds good but won’t work

Prof. Pettigrew: You’ll just need to trust us.


A math lecture at the University of Guelph (Jessica Darmanin)

The most attractive and least practical idea in the world of Canadian universities is the notion that universities should be accountable for what students are actually learning.

After all, if taxpayers are funding universities, shouldn’t they have some assurances that students are actually learning what they are supposed to be learning? For that matter, if parents are footing a big part of the bill, shouldn’t they have some assurances too? And what about students? If they are trying to build a future based on a university degree, why can’t they guarantee a potential employer that they have some real skills?

When it comes to learning, are we just supposed to take professors’ words for it?

I encounter such arguments frequently, most recently in this piece by Maureen Mancuso. Mancuso quite rightly notes that it is silly and reductive to see university education merely as an investment, but wonders, nevertheless, why we can’t seek some changes to make us more accountable.

The devil, as usual, is in the details. Suppose we could document exactly what students have gained from their educations. What would that look like? Mancuso offers the following example:

transcript designations that identify courses which are particularly writing- or research- or numeracy-intensive offer a more transparent view of just what a student gained by achieving a good mark.

The problem is that such designations would offer no such thing. They would only indicate what students were supposed to have learned. There is no guarantee that the professor in the writing-intensive course actually required a lot of writing, or, if he did, that he held his students to a particularly high standard. And let’s say he did, there is no way of knowing whether or not the student cheated his way through the class.

The only way to evaluate actual student learning would be to devise a massive series of tests that students would take upon graduation. But what kind of monstrous bureaucracy would be required to create, administer, and grade every student in every subject at every university in Canada? Moreover, if such a test were required to graduate, it would be an unconscionable violation of academic freedom and of university integrity. Why? Because if the Department of Educational Accountability said you hadn’t passed, they would essentially be over-ruling a whole slate of professors at the university. And then what’s the point of having universities in the first place?

In any case, secondary schools have or have tried such tests to measure outcomes and it hasn’t worked. Students still come to university with few if any of the thinking skills they should have learned in high school.

The only way to meaningfully make universities accountable is not via outcomes but, to use a term Mancuso rejects, inputs. But inputs need not be restricted to the number of hours a student spends in class (a “metric” Mancuso rejects). We can, instead, focus on ensuring that faculty members are well qualified, have a deep love of teaching and learning, and encouraged to hold students to high standards. This would mean testing of course, but testing in the programs themselves, by the actual professors, not by a government accountability squad.

Take students who are eager to learn and send them to a place filled with smart, knowledgable people who love to teach: learning will happen.

And you’ll have to take my word for it.

Todd Pettigrew is an associate professor of English at Cape Breton University. Agree? Disagree? Let us know in the comments section, on Twitter @maconcampus or on Facebook.


Professor accountability sounds good but won’t work

  1. There is a very good reason why regulated professionals (engineers, registered dietitians, physicians, nurses, etc.) are required to write professional practice exams before they are allowed to practice as a professional. That’s the only way the public can be assured that these individuals have learned what they were supposed to have learned in university (and in the required practicums/internships/residencies/jobs that are needed for these professions as well).

    So standard examinations work for those professions. If you fail the exam required to become a registered dietitian it doesn’t matter if you have a dietetics degree – the provincial regulatory body will not allow you to practice as a registered dietitian, even if your university said you passed all your courses with flying colours.

    So I’m not sure I entirely buy your premise, Prof. Pettigrew. There are plenty of examples where testing occurs outside of university classes, in order to demonstrate that the required learning has taken place at university.

    • Testing for admission into a professional association is not the same thing as retesting the student before granting the degree that he/she has earned by already passing the individual courses in the university they are attending. In the former, the professional association is accepting applicants from a wide variety of backgrounds and cannot reliable know what level of accomplishment a given applicant has achieved. In the latter, the student is coming from the degree granting university and has already passed the exams that text their accomplishment in each of the subjects they have taken so they do qualify for the degree from that particular institution.
      Prof. Pettigrew is arguing the latter case, which is not well related to the former case of professional associations you mentioned here.

  2. My thoughts would be to take this in a different direction entirely. Suppose that, at the end of each of the second, third, and fourth years of a degree, students were required to complete a mandatory capstone course. This would count as a full credit course, but would be essentially an independent study under the guidance of a faculty member–the faculty member would assign two projects of appropriate difficulty for that student’s program to-date and year of studies, one due, say, at the midpoint in the semester, and one at the end. These would be evaluated by the faculty mentor, and the project, along with the mentor’s comments, would be added to a permanent portfolio that could be accessed online by students, and accessed by anyone who the student chose to send an official transcript to–perhaps for a limited time. The six projects in total would, combined, constitute a substantial body of work that would demonstrate both the student’s progress and understanding of the material, and their ability to synthesize what they learned from various courses.

    Some details could be sorted out, and it would probably be a fairly heavy burden on faculty, but if the concern is that grades alone don’t give an accurate picture of student learning (which, I think, is not a wholly unreasonable argument), perhaps we should simply supplement this with examples of the student’s abilities.