The Unmeasurable Value of General Education

by Emrys Westacott

Learning Objectives. Measurable Outcomes. These are among the buzziest of buzz words in current debates about education. And that discordant groaning noise you can hear around many academic departments is the sound of recalcitrant faculty, following orders from on high, unenthusiastically inserting learning objectives (henceforth LOs) and measurable outcomes (hereafter MOs) into already bloated syllabi or program assessment instruments.

But why do they moan and groan? Administrators, accreditors, and politicians see no problem. Nor do many teachers in STEM subjects and other technical fields. And prima facie they have a good case. Isn’t it obviously a good idea to have LOs for any course you teach? And shouldn’t you know what they are, be able to articulate them, and let your students know what you want them to achieve? How could any reasonable person think otherwise?

Ditto for MOs. Don’t you want to know if your LOs have been achieved? Why on earth wouldn’t you want to know? This, surely, is how we improve on what we do. We set goals. We see how well we are meeting them. We then tinker, tweak, or revamp wholesale in light of our findings, in a never-ending process of improvement.

It all sounds so sensible.

But what is sound practice in some contexts makes much less sense in others. Even those who have drunk the LO-MO Kool-Aid might balk at the idea of couples specifying in their pre-nuptial agreements a well-defined set of marital objectives linked to measurable outcomes. When it comes to college courses, the emphasis on LOs and MOs may sometimes be reasonable, particularly in courses that form an integrated and progressive program of study in technical subjects that lend themselves to exact modes of assessment. But I suspect they are of dubious value in at least one common and important kind of course–namely, the general education course where most of the students are receiving their only college-level exposure to an academic field.

To see this, I invite any champion of LO-MOs to conduct the following thought experiment. Imagine you are teaching a gen. ed. class in which the majority of the students will pursue majors and careers in fields quite unrelated to the subject matter of the course–for instance, prospective chemists or accountants, taking Medieval History or Music Appreciation. Imagine, further, that someone devised a novel teaching method which guaranteed that on the comprehensive final exam, all the students could demonstrate excellent recall and conceptual grasp of the material, along with mastery of specific skills. Would you use this method (assuming it is ethical and legal)? The question is a no-brainer. Which teacher of gen. ed. courses wouldn’t exchange their present experience for this?

But now suppose that this remarkable method turns out to have one slight drawback: it only produces a short-term gain. A week after the final exam, the recall, the grasp, the mastery, have all drained away. In that case, would you still use the method? Surely not. What would be the point? Teaching students things they forget shortly after the course is over looks like a perfect example of what Camus calls an absurd project, analogous to Sisyphus rolling his rock up a mountain only to see it crash back down the moment he reaches the summit. (I know. At this point readers who are teachers may be thinking: “Hang on a minute! Doesn’t that pretty much describe exactly………?” Don’t go there! Focus on the argument.)

Now tweak the thought experiment again. Extend the period from final exam to total lack of recall to one month, a year, three years. At what point would you say you’re not troubled by the fact that the students can remember hardly anything you taught them?

Suppose the time lag in question is three years. Would you be content to teach a class knowing that in three years most of the students will recall little of what they learned? If you answer yes, then the obvious next question is: why does it matter that the stuff stays in their heads for three weeks or three months, but not for three years?

If you answer no, however, this implies that one of your LOs is long-term retention of what you teach. Good. But remember, LOs are considered vacuous all by their lonesome selves. They only deserve respect if hitched to appropriate MOs. So the obvious next question is: how will you measure whether the desired LO of long-term retention has been achieved?

One response is to say, “Well, measuring long-term retention is tricky and time-consuming. And I’m not sure Alumni Relations will be all that keen on us administering Chemistry 101 Recall Tests at their wine and cheese parties. But LOs matter. And you can’t have LOs without MOs. So let’s just roll up our sleeves and get on with it.”

The other response is to say, “Oh, screw it! It’s just too much trouble to try to find out how much students recall from a class taken years ago in a field they’ve had little contact with since. Tracking down the students, persuading them to take a test or fill out a questionnaire, making sure your sample is representative, and so on, isn’t worth the candle.”

If you favor the first response, you are a true LO-MO believer. Hats off to consistency and resolution! If your inclination is toward the second response then you are implicitly accepting an important principle that the party of the first part seems to have lost sight of: viz. that measuring some goals is simply more trouble than it’s worth and, moreover, almost impossible to do with any great precision.
Ultimately, the problem is not just that some goals are too much trouble to measure. It goes deeper than that. The fundamental problem here is that the whole approach that requires educators to break down their mission into precisely defined aspirational elements which can then be assessed in quantificational terms is not appropriate for every kind of teaching or learning. This approach is obviously driven by a concern to be “scientific.” It is doubtless useful in some educational contexts: e.g. in determining if students have sufficient mastery of the material in a technical or information-heavy course for them to advance to the next stage in a sequential program. But it is much less useful where the educational purposes are more general and belong to a holistic conception of education as a life-enhancing activity that enriches our lives in multiple ways by, for instance, providing foundational knowledge necessary for understanding our world, opening up avenues of experience, awakening interests, cultivating capacities for appreciation and enjoyment, and improving our ability to reflect intelligently on all that we learn.

That is why I am content to teach general education classes to college students, even though I know that after a short while–whether measured in weeks or years–many of them probably won’t be able to demonstrate according to some LO-MO rubric any specific benefit that they derived from the course. I believe that my course, along many others they take, will add a pebble to the cairn, making a hard-to-define, hard-to-measure contribution to the life-long project that at least some of them are committed to of becoming better educated individuals.