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Conclusion: turning the conversation from grading to learning

How can the pedagogical practices at Reed and Evergreen State help to strengthen the relatively young liberal arts tradition in the Netherlands? It would be misleading to believe that we could simply copy some of the practices to our own context and generate a quick fix. While a pedagogical culture may incorporate certain institutional practices that sustain that very culture, it is an error to believe that simply copying those institutional practices would bring the culture along with it. Moreover, we need to be aware of the specific context of liberal arts in the Dutch higher education context to better understand the challenges we are facing as well as the viability of the solutions we propose.

Let me illustrate those challenges by sharing with you part of a conversation I happened to run into upon my return from the Pacific Northwest. One of my colleagues was sensing a decline in motivation, both on the part of instructors as well as students. She admitted that the visit of the two colleagues of Reed had made her reflect upon her teaching practices as well as on what she saw happening in the classrooms. Recalling her own experiences of a liberal arts education she was struck by the distance between the way her teachers were organizing their courses and the way her teaching had evolved over the last couple of years. “I remember my teachers just asking me to write a 2500 word essay on a topic of my own choice. And apparently we all knew how to do this. But in my own courses I’ve seen my instructions on how to write an essay evolve into a five page instructional manual, because students otherwise will hand in crap”.

Another colleague noticed the striking difference in the mentality of the first generation of UCR students – of which she had been part – and the attitude of many of today’s students, ten years down the road. She had just witnessed a situation where exams were handed back and students collectively blamed the instructor for not having been asked specifically enough what type of answer was needed. Hence the students claimed all of them should be given the ‘missed’ points as it was not their fault that they did not give the complete answer.

I feel these two observations directly speak to the issue of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation as well as the way we organize our curriculum and college culture. But this then requires us to reflect upon the philosophy that underpins the Dutch liberal arts tradition. And we have to ask ourselves the question how strong of a foundation this tradition actually has, given the fact that there are only still a few colleges out there and all of them have been inspired by the model that the founder of the first two colleges – Hans Adriaansens –  conceived of when starting UCU and UCR respectively.

A sociologist by training, Adriaansens always has showed a great sensitivity to the impact of context on human behavior. Adriaansens thus attributed the lack of excellence and ambition in Dutch higher education to the way the programs were structured and the massive and highly egalitarian culture of Dutch education (see this Liber  Amicorum to learn more about his legacy).  Based upon his experiences as a visiting scholar at Smith College he devised a way to create a context that would again enable students to excel. Hence emerged a model with many of the well- known features of liberal arts colleges: selecting students, a broad curriculum that allows them to figure out what disciplines they actually like, continuous assessment and a variety of course tasks, finally a system where  scoring high grades is in fact appreciated. This new model was an instant success and it did not take long before other universities started copying it and established their own liberal arts colleges. While each of these colleges is organized in a somewhat different way, they all very much resemble the original model that Adriaansens devised.

But to what extent have each of these colleges taken the time to really,  explicitly, reflect upon their philosophical and pedagogical foundations? Did they actually reflect upon each of the elements of the original model Adriaansens devised, or simply copy the hardware as it had proven to be so very successful? After all, at face value the colleges are a great success: with high graduation rates and a significant share of students graduating with distinctions as cum laude or summa cum laude. But does this really tell us to what extent students have actually learned something in those three years?


We should reckon with  the possibility that in fact students learn much less than what we actually think they are learning, or learn the wrong kind of things (and in order to find out we badly need the type of study Arum and Roksa performed in the US context). But this of course requires a college broad consensus on what a program entails and should bring across and an accompanying culture that ensures that these values are discussed, shared and communicated to new students and faculty. Offering a liberal arts and sciences program is more than a model, but because so much attention is just paid to the magic formula we loose sight of the more fundamental  questions as to the purpose of higher  education.

In the Dutch context two elements may make these threats larger. The first is that for students liberal arts programs may increasingly derive its attractiveness from the fact that courses are highly structured, chopped up in manageable pieces with ample teacher support at hand that makes it in fact a highly do-able program (Dutch policymakers use the ugly term ‘studeerbaarheid’ for that). This then might also provide part of the explanation of my colleague lamenting that she was seeing a type of students begging for grades, that she believed were not around when she started out as part of the first generation of liberal arts and sciences students. Could there be the possibility that we are attracting a different type of students nowadays, for which the liberal arts programs provides the perfect type of a pampered university education? This then would mean that we should more closely assess student motivations for wanting to do a liberal arts program.

The second worrisome development is the highly regimented evaluation cycle to which all Dutch higher education institutions are subject in order to secure their accreditation and public funding. This in itself is of course a good thing, but the structural organization of these evaluations and the criteria evaluators use for deciding on the quality of a program are highly procedural. Evaluators fly in like election observers and assess programs on the basis of manuals that emphasize transparency, explicitly formulated learning-goals, do-ability (‘studeerbaarheid’), evidence of a clear connection between material covered and assessments given, quality control systems, grading criteria and procedures for appeal.

Consider the following passage from the accreditation report of one liberal arts college, found on the website of the NVAO one of the official accreditors:

The committee noticed in the critical reflection that grade performance averages (GPA) are relatively high and expressed its concern that such scores may lead to grade inflation. During the visit, faculty and Board of Examiners indicated that it is [the college’s] policy to use absolute grading, that teachers and study materials are quite articulate as to what is expected from students, and that the ever stricter admission policy entails that only the cleverest students eventually enrol. In sum, according to [the college], there is no reason to fear for grade inflation. Consistency in high scores rather indicates that students, teachers and courses have become better over time.

This is a rather bold assertion on the part of this college. Are they really sure that their teaching and learning has improved that much over so short a time? Or is it indeed simply a matter of letting in ever brighter students who, not surprisingly will obtain higher grades. But what then, does the college itself really add?  More  fundamentally however, I think that this is the wrong type  of conversation the committee and the college engaged in, as this is a conversation about grading, rather than learning.

And what does that imply for my colleague who maybe would want to consider saying farewell to the five page manual and getting back to just ask students to write a 2500 word essay? I bet that evaluators would be very critical of such an open and unspecified type of course task.

Hence if we are convinced that these external evaluators use the wrong criteria, it is upon us to show them why they are wrong. And this requires us to see if a different approach will indeed yield better results. And this brings us back to the discussion about the extent to which we should downplay grades and its relation to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. As far as I can see the most relevant work on this comes from Israeli psychologist Ruth Butler, who has shown in several studies that grades in fact reduce the intrinsic motivation of students , even when accompanied by other feedback. The group that kept the highest level of motivation was the one just receiving feedback, without hearing their grades. This seems to corroborate the experiences the people at Reed shared with me and the advantages of such a model.

However her studies are already somewhat dated and were not conducted in the context of higher education. What we do need therefore is carefully controlled experiments where we more closely investigate the effect of grades versus assessment on student motivation and learning. If there is anyone out there who would be interested in conducting such an experiment in the liberal arts context I would be happy to join forces. In the meantime I think that for next semester I’ll simply stop telling my students their grades until the very end of the course. That’s the least I can try for starters.

Herman Lelieveldt
25 november 2015

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