College “teaches the unmeasurable.” I call BS.

In the recent discussion about the importance of the credit hour, a standard defense of college has arisen: “college teaches things not measured by tests.”

How convenient! Now I’m the first to lament the proliferation of multiple-choice testing as the be-all and end-all of assessment. And it IS true that we are certainly training students to become better test takers rather than critical thinkers to be sure.

But when you say that what college teaches cannot be measured, I take offense. After all, I am a psychologist, we pride ourselve on being able to measure anything. That we don’t, or worse, currently choose not to, suggests something:

  • Perhaps, we don’t really want to know how good college is at teaching critical thinking – critical thinking is not a unitary skill, students who are brilliant at math might suck at solving a physics problem, and both could be pretty bad at “practical matters”. Specialization, has a price. Maybe we don’t measure critical thinking because it is unique to each field and job, and global tests of critical thinking are doomed to be unreliable. Trying to teach critical thinking is a fools errand. (Even academic have been known to make to occasion irrational decision when it comes to finances, or relationships, or virtually anything one doesn’t have experience with.)
  • Maybe we are afraid. What if we actually do do a terrible job preparing students for the real world?  Most academics are not familiar with a world where doing something not obviously connected to practical application can get you fired. We live in worlds of theories, trapped in an ivory tower of similar like-minded academics. We don’t often have to explain the value of what we do to others not so entrenched. It’s uncomfortable when your field of study can feel like it is under attack.

And it is true that some of the value of college is not immediately obvious. Increasingly, the best companies are allowing for 20% time and letting their employees spend far more on R&D than schools ever do. Companies today understand that play and what appears on the surface to be “doing nothing” can be a crucial incubation period. Maybe practical value-added of college IS overrated. College is a time to make weird connections, to have exposure to the world’s biggest think tank: where someone who knows history walks near someone who knows psychology and students move between each class. We need to help students see the connections, to help them connect what they are learning now with everything they have learned.

Better yet, we need a way of getting the university to start acting like the powerhouse of real critical thinking that it can be. Finding better ways to help 35,000 students (and more) meet their best potential. We need a way of crowd-sourcing education, but that’s a discussion for another time.


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