Need-to-Know Basis

A recent sunny late-winter day seemed a little less bright as a group of very smart people gathered in the library’s Watson Lecture Hall to confront what seemed like an insurmountable task.

“How Do We Know What Our Students Know?”

That was the question up for discussion, and the well-prepared panel—including Director of Center for Teaching, Learning and Research (CTLR) Kathy Skubikowski; Professor of Psychology and Dean of Planning and Assessment Susan Campbell; Visiting Assistant Professor of Education Studies Tara Affolter; Middlebury Union High School (MUHS) teacher and 2001 National Teacher of the Year Michele Forman; and 2009 graduate and current MUHS teacher Geoff Edwards—did their best to explore some possible answers.

Organized by CTLR as part of its 2010 Pedagogy Series, the panel raised issues on everything from the indirect evidence of conventional assessment and standardized surveys to direct evidence such as writing samples to more complex concepts such as “knowledge” vs. “understanding.”

Affolter opened the discussion by articulating the differences between knowledge and understanding, between teaching and learning. “You can have knowledge without really understanding something, and there can be teaching without any real learning going on,” she said. She noted educational psychologist Lee Shulman’s analysis of dysfunctional learning in terms of amnesia, fantasia and inertia. Amnesia is when you simply forget what you have learned; fantasia is when you think you understand something but you really don’t; and inertia is when the things you’ve learned simply lie around in your brain and are never used again to reflect on other contexts.

Most everyone on the panel agreed that traditional forms of assessment, such as tests and surveys, were not the most effective method for gathering useful and individualized information. As Forman pointed out, “No two students know the same things, learn in the same way, or even express what they know the same way.” Her favored form of assessment is to combine as many forms as possible—from judging the expression on a student’s face to reviewing a semester’s worth of work in a cumulative portfolio. Multiple choice tests are her absolute nemesis, and she threatens her students from day one not to ever memorize a single thing. “Dates and names mean nothing out of context. Making connections and relative inferences is the way to remember things.”

Campbell spoke from a somewhat different perspective. As current director of Middlebury’s self-study and reaccreditation process, she is interested in the administrative and academic issues in terms of “how can we know if we’re doing our job well?” The College’s primary assessment tool for academic departments is the students’ course evaluations, and while those can useful, said Campbell, “they don’t always tell us much about how well students are learning particular concepts or meeting course goals.

As for alternative types of assessment, she added, professors within departments should make time to talk to each other on a regular basis. “Don’t underestimate the value of straightforward social interaction,” she said. “Having conversations about how things are going and what we’re doing can be so helpful. What are our goals? How do we each contribute? How do we know we’ve succeeded? Sometimes a conversation can be more informative than anything else.”

Skubikowski rounded out the discussion with some characteristic nuts and bolts. As a teacher of both critical and creative writing, she has a research perspective that, while not specifically answering the question of “what they know,” at least opens a window on “how they articulate what they know.” She described a study in which she and her colleagues have followed 36 writers over four years to better understand what students are learning and how. The study should be complete this year.

A flurry of audience questions illustrated just how complex this issue can be. Thoughts and concerns ranged from “this feels limiting” to “do we really need to know what our students know?” And while no one brought it up directly, many implied that it’s the parents, who pay up to $50,000 for a year of college, who want to quantify what they are getting for their money.

Overall, there seemed to be a general consensus that both teaching and learning improve when multiple ways of accessing particular content is made available and multiple methods of assessment are used.

No doubt this is an engaging—and potentially inconclusive—conversation that will continue on all corners of this campus. As for the right answer? We may never know.

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  1. Faculty need to state and enforce measurable objectives, in syllabi and as part of course discourse, so students can self-assess and thus eliminate the illusion of grading subjectivity.

  2. Prof. Barbara Hofer in the Psychology Dept. has devoted the majority of her research career to the questions above, mainly through the field of personal epistemology. If anyone finds themselves seriously curious about what developmental and cognitive psychologists have to say about the matter, they might send Prof. Hofer a brief email asking for further reading.

    As for what philosophers have to say (although these days it’s becoming more and more common to see philosophers and psychologists collaborate about epistemological issues, and so philosophy and psychology are becoming more and more consensual about them), I think the analogous point of contact in the Philosophy Dept. would be Prof. Kareem Khalifa–although each Philosophy professor will be at least somewhat versed in the

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    field of epistemology.

    Hope this is helpful!

    Dan Murphy ’11
    Psychology & Philosophy major

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We hope to create a lively discussion on and invite you to add your voice. Please keep comments civil and relevant to the news item at hand. may remove comments that do not follow these guidelines.

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