Monday, March 14, 2011

Academically Adrift

I've come up for air after posting part three of Life Artificial yesterday evening. Over the last few weeks I've had dozens of browser tabs open to write a post about, but have been too focused on getting particular projects done to write them.

I finished reading most of Academically Adrift last week, meaning I've started but not finished the Appendices. I downloaded the book from Amazon and read it on the iPad's Kindle application. This is very convenient, and the reading experience is fine, but it does have a significant drawback. Despite the ability to bookmark pages and leave yourself notes and highlights, it's not very easy for me to mark up the book in an easily accessible fashion for reference purposes. Normally I'd have sticky notes coming out of the leaves of the volume, and have text circled by scribbled notes in the margin. This by way of apology that I don't have many quotes in this post.

I've never been impressed with the CLA, and the research in Academically Adrift depends heavily on it. I hasten to add that I don't have any problems with the laudable aim of assessing "critical thinking, complex reasoning, and writing." I think the instrument itself can even be useful. It's the exaggerated claims of importance and over-statement of validity that seem unwarranted to me. Because so much of the book relies on CLA scores, let me elaborate.

First, the test is advertised as posing "real world" problems to test subjects. I'm not quite sure what this means, but it sounds good. An example is given on page 22-23:

This seems to be a particularly poor exemplar of a real world problem. On the face of it: would you ask a twenty-something with two years of college to make a decision like this? Undoubtedly the aircraft is an expensive purchase that, more to the point, you'll be trusting your life to. So the way you make the decision is to give a non-expert a limited amount of documentation and ask for a report?  I don't think so.

Real life problems are not neatly defined by a few newspaper articles, FAA reports, and such. There's a vast body of knowledge to sort through an analyze if one cares to look for it. It is in the form of web searches, academic and professional articles, interviews with experts, and on and on. I understand that it would make the test much harder to administer to allow open-ended searches, and it would take a long time. Days or weeks. This just highlights how far this exercise is from a real "real life problem."

Real life problems are generally solved by people who know what they are doing. You don't ask the guy at the car wash to take out your gall bladder for a good reason. If you want to know about safety issues with a particular model of airplane, I think it would be really good to talk to a senior mechanic that works on such planes and to pilots that fly them. In fact, putting an expert in the field in charge of your investigation would be the best thing to do, no? This is one of the problems with assessments of "critical thinking" that try to ignore content knowledge. It doesn't work. Content is really important when you want to solve a problem, unless all you care about is sophistry.

Here's a real life problem:
You're the head mechanic who supervises a small fleet of helicopters for a rent-a-bird operation. The chief pilot is planning to fly in tomorrow to test out a new Bell Jet Ranger that you're getting ready for operations. But you and your team haven't been able to get the main rotor balanced, and you suspect that the part that came from Bell to do this is defective. But the pilot has a volatile temper, and is going to be very upset with you if the helicopter isn't ready for him to fly when he gets here. What do you do?
This requires technical knowledge, creativity, and judgment about social dynamics to get through, and there's probably no perfect solution. This was a real world problem I witnessed as a teenager. I saw the mechanics try to balance that rotor blade for hours. They finally gave up, put it on the helicopter anyway, and let the pilot try to take off with it that way! It was so out of balance, that he could only wobble the aircraft around on the ground before giving up. He emerged looking like a ghost, too relieved to be alive to be mad at anyone. Probably not an ideal solution.

A problem with the analysis in the book is the emphasis on differences in scores and the way the information is represented. Others have mentioned (e.g. this article in The Chronicle) that the authors of Academically Adrift put a lot of importance on how many students haven't demonstrated significant learning. The literature I've read on the CLA says that it's not even designed for student-level analysis, but for comparing institutions. But never mind that. The statistical problem that has been pointed out by others is that a hypothesis test that does not find a difference in pre-post tests does not mean that there is no difference. This is from Stats 101. As an analogy, let's say my kid is getting ready for school and can't find her gym clothes. I don't have my glasses on yet and am bumbling around the house before the first cup of coffee has kicked in. But I look here and there for the gym clothes halfheartedly as I walk around. There are two possibilities:
  1. I see the distinctive purple bag. Even without my glasses on, there's a reasonably high probability that I've found the gym clothes.
  2. I look in the room but don't see the bag. I cannot say that the bag isn't in the room, only that I didn't see it. It may, in fact, be just behind the door.
This is the difference between rejecting the null hypothesis (#1) and not rejecting it (#2). Yet the authors lead us to believe through their narrative that not finding a difference means that there is no difference, and go on to claim that not much learning is happening during the first two years of college. 

Although the authors wave at the notion of IQ late in the book, they never say anything about the relationship between what they are trying to measure and intelligence (as assessed by standard instruments). Psychologists assure us that IQ is largely static. It's also closely related to verbal skills, which is what the CLA assesses too. If IQ is largely immutable, don't we need to factor it out before making conclusions about improvement? I understand that this is very sensitive issue because you ultimately would have to say that some people are smarter than other people (with all the fine print that goes with that), but to completely ignore the issue seems disingenuous.

We shouldn't necessarily reject all the findings of the book just because the analysis is flawed. The attention on how hard students work and the corresponding rigor of academics is an important discussion. Unfortunately, the way the headline findings of the text overstate the findings on complex learning outcomes only feeds into the current of public discourse advertising that teachers are villains. Despite carefully worded disclaimers that general readers won't decode, the book practically screams that the first two years of college don't produce any meaningful learning. This is a disservice to all the course instructors out there who work hard to teach students calculus, computer programming, world history, composition, and so on.

The fact is that the content of the CLA doesn't correspond well to the course content of a general education curriculum. This could be remedied easily. I am quite sure that a one-semester prep course on items like the ones on the CLA would significantly increase the scores. Would this result in real, meaningful knowledge? Maybe, depending on the depth of the course. A pure test-prep course that teaches how to game the test is probably worthless. But perhaps the current curricula are out of date. Even if that's true, the importance of the CLA and its standardized measurement are not very important because they are too simplified, and rely too much (I assume) on IQ, and not enough on discipline-based knowledge. There are already recommendations (e.g. from the AAC&U) to increase complex problem solving skills, and many institutions are already struggling with how to teach and assess this. But almost by definition, complex problems aren't trivial to solve. If the CLA becomes the measure of these learning outcomes--if we really take analyses like Academically Adrift seriously--they we will shortly have another instance of Campbell's Law at work. See this Wall Street Journal article for a good example. Or this opinion about "impact factors."

Learning outcomes don't matter anyway, in the big picture. That is, test scores and other performance indicators taken during college aren't ultimately the measure of success of a program. It's what happens after graduation that ultimately matters. Are your graduates curious about the world? Do they read newspapers and vote intelligently? Are they engaged in service to their fellow humans? Do they contribute to the overall economy? Depending on the mission of the institution, these goals may vary (but always include "do they donate money?"). At the level of the Education Department, where the strategy should inform the national interests, perhaps the easiest metric of success would be income histories. The federal government has vast data stores on financial aid given. It also has all the IRS data. I asked an official from DoE about mashing these up to answer important questions like "what's the lifetime earnings benefit for attending a private vs public college?". I wasn't encouraged by the answer. No one cares enough or the problem seems too hard. And yet, I'm sure if we gave all the data to the guys at Facebook, they'd have it figured out over the weekend.

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