Wednesday, May 29, 2013


Ask the Administrator: Doesn’t Time Matter in Itself?

A thoughtful correspondent writes:

One question occurs to me when I read your posts on alternativesto the credit hour:
How might these reforms apply when predefined competencies aren'tnecessarily the purpose of college study?  I'm speaking of music, whichis my field, though the question might apply to others too.  It's commonfor a music major to choose a university to spend four years studyingwith a particular professor, not to achieve Competencies A through Z.("Competency A" might read "student can perform [x] repertoire withcorrect pitch and rhythm, good intonation, and expressive dynamics.")
Music schools accept students where they are, coaching them throughyears of progress in the direction they want to go.  One freshman mightoutperform seniors, while another might be just starting to read music.If a music degree is a list of competencies, and if a freshman canalready play (or sing) 75% of the requirements, the school might say"you graduate in one year."  In some fields, this might look like asolution to Baumol's cost disease.  In my field, the student would berobbed of three years of faculty guidance refining her craft.  Otherstudents would lose the educational experience of playing in ensembleswith high-performing peers.
Sometimes learning really does correlate to time.  No one can pack 14hours of rehearsal into one day and expect to retain anything, but 2hours on 7 consecutive days gets you somewhere.
Don't get me wrong, I absolutely agree that music degrees need baselinecompetencies.  Otherwise unscrupulous institutions can sell credit forplaying around. (Literally!)  But competencies aren't the whole story.A music degree doesn't only mean "I can play [x] repertoire" and "I cananalyze [x] chords."  A child prodigy might already meet thosestandards, but prodigies aren't always prepared for challenges requiringsteady effort over time.  To me, a music degree means:  "I put in thetime."  It means:  "I don't just have innate talent, I have a provenwork ethic."  I've even heard of employers favoring graduates whodouble-majored in music for this reason.
How do you turn those outcomes into testable competencies?  How woulddoing so improve productivity?
We hear from administrators that one-on-one instruction iscost-prohibitive.  Music schools need instruments, concert halls, andrecording equipment, plus staff to maintain all of the above.  We useFTE from 300-seat music appreciation lectures to subsidize privatelessons.   We can break even, but we can't get ahead without sacrificinga fundamental purpose.  Any school that shortens "seat time" in the nameof productivity will find the talented students going somewhere else.
If you view productivity as "man-hours for a student to earn a degree,"are fields based on individual instruction doomed to drag us all down?Is there a place for music in the emerging higher education landscape?

I like this question a lot, because it really gets at the heart of the matter.  It’s one thing to talk about competencies when the subject matter is relatively cut-and-dried: either the student can add fractions or she can’t.  But what about subtle refinement over time?  A fourth-year flute major may not be doing anything a second-year flute major isn’t doing -- I honestly don’t know -- but is supposed to be doing it at a higher level.  Baumol originally applied his “cost disease” analysis to a string quartet performance, noting that there’s really no way to speed it up without fundamentally changing the music.  Music isn’t alone; if we judged, say, philosophy on a competency basis, things could get weird quickly.  (“Student will be able to prove/disprove the existence of God.”)

On my own campus, the on-the-ground variation of this discussion happened a couple of years ago when we brought back a January intersession.  Intersession is quite short, so we had to decide which classes made sense to offer in that format and which didn’t.  (Intersession offers fewer and longer days, closely packed together.)  Through a combination of thoughtful discussion and, yes, some trial and error, it became clear quickly that some courses thrived in the shorter, more intense format, and others just didn’t make sense.  For example, some of the lab classes were spectacularly successful in the compressed format, because the longer class days meant that professors could run more ambitious lab projects and actually have time to do them.  (They also lost a smaller proportion of time to setup and takedown.)  Some 100-level math classes also thrived, since the students were so immersed that they didn’t have time to lose track of the logic.  But nobody could figure out how to run composition classes in that format; the writing, rewriting, and grading just didn’t lend themselves.  

At this point, intersession is a huge success for us, but it’s successful as a part of a larger whole.  That larger whole includes full-semester courses as well.

My guess with competencies is that we’re in the very early stages, still trying to figure out which courses require only minor tweaking and which areas of study would have to be approached in different ways.  

The issue about the value of time itself may come down to the extent to which we see degrees as relevant mostly for showing content and ability, or relevant largely for showing persistence.  If it’s the former, then I don’t think that students should be locked into relatively rigid schedules.  If it’s the latter, then maybe they should.  The work world contains both “just get it done” and “be here from 8 to 5” roles, often in the same job.  

If we want to stick with the time-bound measure, though, then we’ll have to resign ourselves to an upward cost spiral.  That could play itself out straightforwardly, through higher spending, or perversely, by sustained budget cutting.  (The turn to adjuncts is not a refutation of Baumol’s disease; it’s a symptom.)  

If we insist on treating competencies or outcomes as add-ons to the traditional calendar, then that’s all they’ll be.  Taken seriously, they could upend the calendar.  At that point, we need to decide which is more important.  I’m inclined to err on the side of experimentation, but that’s me.

Wise and worldly readers, what do you think?  Is there a place for time-bound measures in the new educational landscape?

Have a question?  Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

Time matters for repetition to hammer something home. You can do well on a test if you're a good crammer. The content is gone a week afterwards. If you repeat the test a week later, note which questions you missed, and study, you can take the test again a week after that and more of the content will be in long-term memory. You repeat at longer and longer intervals until the material is solid. There is a science to this, well-studied, and it should be consulted.
Even for majors that aren't based on a lot of one-on-one instruction, like music, the combination of the 4-year (or whatever) concept and the "gentleman's C" enables you to actually do a lot for serving a range of students. Consider this:

In any major, there are the people who just kind of get the basics, and the ones who really go far. The gentleman's C means that you pass along the ones who at least get the basics. But you can teach at a higher level than you test, so you can do something to serve the ones who are way above that.

If we go to competencies, you either have to specify a low-enough/small-enough set of competencies that the C students can still get a degree, or you specify something higher. If you specify something higher, you can serve the better students, but the weaker ones won't get degrees. If you set something lower, the stronger ones can muster their competencies, and then....what? They're out the door? For some of them, that will be great, and good for them. For others, maybe they want to go farther, and maybe they should go farther. But a set of competencies adequate for the C student to graduate will not be adequate to get these better students into a graduate program. Do we create some degree intermediate between the Bachelor's and Master's, for the students who want to go farther? Or create "competency degrees" and "honors degrees" or something like that?

And would a system like this actually provide something better, in practice? Would it get the weak ones through any faster, or would competency testing actually catch their weaknesses and make them take even longer? Would Bachelor's plus Honors Degree (or whatever) be that much shorter than the 4 years that a good student can do? Would this individualization actually save any money in upper-division education? I'm willing to believe that there would be savings at the lower-division level, but I'm far from convinced that upper-division education would actually become cheaper or more efficient.

And consider general education. Yes, institutions specify sets of learning outcomes for general education. But that's only part of it. The other part is spending some time exposed to other things. You don't just put an engineer in a literature class to achieve a set of literature learning outcomes. You also put them in an engineering class so they can spend a semester interacting with a literature professor and seeing how a literature professor thinks about literature. It's likely that within a few weeks a really smart engineering student could write a paper as good as that written by some of the weaker students at the end of a semester, but I think the academy would be poorer if that engineering student were immediately sent away at that point. Keep the smart engineer in a class led by an insightful literature prof so they get a semester of stimulating discussions of literature to supplement their engineering.

My understanding is that in many foreign university systems the students have a few big exams (which we might take as indicators of competencies in various subjects) and the rest of their time is spent as they wish. Lectures and discussions are available to prepare for the exams, but ultimately all that matters is just passing the exams. The American system, with more intensive in-person experiences, group projects, etc., is regarded by many as a richer in-person experience.

I would find it hilarious if the ultimate progressive reform was to move to a traditional European-style system based on exams.
Thank you for sharing. I found this post to be very helpful.
Your music correspondent has it right, and not just about high-level music students. Competency in many fields is really more like competency- plus. Foreign language is the same. You can cram a lot of language learning into a time span that is quite short (people moving overseas do this all the time), but distributed practice is better and time to achieve comfort, nuance, and fluency is better still.

Alex's points are right on target as well. Seat time allows teachers to "teach above the test," and without that you are losing a lot that is valuable. Even the Gentleman's C students (who may be such because of lack of effort, lack of preparation, or lack of interest) benefit from that exposure.

At the same time, there are plenty (probably a majority)of post-secondary students who are really there for the credential and the practical knowledge that will enable them to get a job and function as a citizen. Telling them they need to pay more and spend more time so that professors can give some added value to students who want to go to grad school seems unfair.
Your music correspondent, and the comments above, articulate precisely what makes me uncomfortable about competency-based accreditation. So this has been very thought provoking, thanks!

I do wish though that people would stop bringing out mathematics as the example of something that can be tested unambiguously. Being able to understand and apply concepts is a very nuanced and hard to test thing, even (especially) at the level of arithmetic. For example: I've had first year college students who can add fractions just fine, but who cannot answer questions like: "cut a 1 foot rod into four equal pieces, how long is each piece?". (I'm not exaggerating here.)

I realize math courses don't always rise to this ideal, but my personal experience teaching mathematics feels very much like what your music correspondent describes.
At the same time, there are plenty (probably a majority)of post-secondary students who are really there for the credential and the practical knowledge that will enable them to get a job and function as a citizen. Telling them they need to pay more and spend more time so that professors can give some added value to students who want to go to grad school seems unfair.

I agree. What I wonder, though, is whether a competency-based system would, in practice, reduce the time and cost for most of them. We see enough people who are barely achieving competency in 4+ years. And most of the students who can do more than just competency want to do more, at least in some subjects.

At the same time, what does it do to the signaling value of the credential if we modify it? Does the value go up, because the new system is seen as weeding out "Gentleman's C" performance, and it provides a measure of how quickly you could learn? Does the value remain unchanged, because the outcomes are similar? Does it go down because it no longer signals 4 years of social development?

I suspect that for 18 year-olds, the practical difference would be small and the point about social development is an important one. OTOH, I suspect that for older students, who already have enough work experience and life experience to have matured in other ways, competency degrees have real strength. I wonder if the biggest problem with the BA is that we expect it to simultaneously serve as a formative experience for "traditional" 18 year-olds and as a credential accessible to people at any age if they want to move up.
For non-traditional students, we already have mechanisms in place to assign credit based on competency developed elsewhere, for example through life-long learning, work skills, and real-world experience. And at every school I've ever worked at, the process to attain such credit is intentionally made quite difficult. At my current university, departmental funding is based on enrollments, so few departments, units, or colleges have an incentive to allow for credit through experience to "count" as substitutes for their program requirements. We lose the student, we lose the funding.

The exception (at my current school, anyway) is for military service. A student who has served in the military can transfer in about 30 credits of "leadership," phys ed, and vo-tech types of credits. Of course, most of those count as "free electives" meaning that they aren't worth a heck of a lot at the end of the day.
I can think of arguments that go both ways, all based on personal experience.

There are classes where you have to do some serious reflection on newly encountered concepts, particularly complex ones like one meets in the third semester of calculus. In cases like that, most students cannot accelerate the mental processing. Those are classes where a competency approach (where you can't move on until you've fully mastered an earlier essential skill) might require more than a semester for some students to succeed. This would be great for those who really will need to apply those skills in physics or electrical engineering, but how do you pay for that?

Some classes like that just don't work well at all in a summer semester.

There are classes where a condensed summer format (meeting 5 days a week rather than 2 days a week) results in more learning based on comparable measures. This is best for gen ed classes where students rarely do, or need to do, much regular homework and where you are happy if they have long-term retention of even a few key ideas. They don't forget what was done two classes before (since that is only two days rather than 7 days). I find that I can do an extra chapter and still have time for the equivalent of an extra week of review.

Finally, there are some topics where students can probably catch up with what they forgot from high school and pass an entire set of competency exams in a week or two. I think this approach is best when dealing with lost knowledge but fails when the skill has never been seen before.
As usual, the context matters deeply. In "performance-based" disciplines (studio art, theater, music, lab sciences, writing, and more that I am surely forgetting), the issue is not achieving certain competencies, but *growing* from where one enters to a higher level. This takes time, coaching (and critiquing), and the time and space to make mistakes.

Now, the "credit hour" may still be the wrong metric, but the desired outcome is certainly directly related to effective time-on-task, and time-with-expert.
The examples keep flooding in...languages (thanks, anon at 6:17 AM)...statistics (competency might mean knowing--or being able to find--the formulas, but what you need is the ability to know which tool to apply to which question, how to interpret the results to non-experts...)...history (what would the "competencies" be? Knowledge of facts?)...

I am deeply suspicious of the notion of definable competencies in many disciplines, including my own (economics).
Post a Comment

<< Home

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?