Although the prominent critics of undergraduate education may have an imperfect grasp of history, nothing that has been said proves that colleges are above reproach. It may well be that undergraduate education has not suffered any discernible decline in quality over the past 50 or 100 years. But is that really a satisfactory outcome? Most human enterprise improves with time and experience. That is certainly true of consumer goods, athletic performances, health care, the effectiveness of our armed forces, the speed of our transportation and communication systems, and much else. Given the vastly expanded resources colleges have acquired, thanks to growing private donations, steadily rising tuitions, and massive infusions of federal financial aid, isn't it fair to expect the quality of education to improve as well?As we ask our students and their parents to invest more and more in higher education, we must do a better job of assessing learning. We as faculty can do this in part by giving more feedback to students; in the course of providing the feedback, we get to know better what our students know and what they don't. This has implications for how we structure instruction, about class sizes, about the use of TAs, and many other aspects of our teaching.
To be sure, the undergraduate enterprise has grown in several dimensions. Millions more students enter college today than half a century ago. Countless new buildings have been built; faculties have greatly increased in numbers; new courses of every kind fill college catalogues to overflowing. Undergraduates can now watch PowerPoint lectures, print out articles at their personal computers, and receive homework assignments via the Internet. But all these changes, however broad in scope, say very little about what is truly important. Has the quality of teaching improved? More important, are students learning more than they did in 1950? Can they write with greater style and grace? Do they speak foreign languages more fluently, read a text with greater comprehension, or analyze problems more rigorously?
The honest answer to these questions is that we do not know. In fact, we do not even have an informed guess that can command general agreement.
But this is not enough. We must develop metrics, some of which might involve testing, and some of which might not, to figure out how we are doing at our fundamental job of teaching. Any thoughts on such potential metrics are welcome.