College Degree, No Class Time Required: Just Religious Faith in Tests

February 11, 2013 at 1:14 am 4 comments

The announcement from U. Wisconsin (that they’ll test students to get a degree, rather than requiring any coursework at all) is showing enormous and unsupported (almost religious) faith in our ability to construct tests, especially online tests.  Building reliable and valid assessments is part of my research, and it’s really hard.  Can I come up with assessments that are at least as good as having 32 (roughly) teachers assess you over a four year period?  I already know that there is a lot that I don’t know how to assess in computing education (because we’ve tried and failed), e.g., the kinds of process knowledge that one gains in software engineering and senior design classes.  I’m sure that there are many assessment experts who are far better than me, so certainly, someone else could do what I could not.  Since I’m also a consumer of others’ assessments, I don’t see high-quality assessments (e.g., I trust them, they’ve been shown to be reliable and valid) that cover everything that we want students to learn. So, no, I do not believe currently that we can build tests to assess an entire computer science undergraduate degree.  To create programs like what Wisconsin proposes is having unsupported faith that new assessments will miraculously appear.  (“Miraculous” because as far as I can tell, no funding is going into building new assessments, and that’s pretty expensive to do well!)

Now, educators in Wisconsin are offering a possible solution by decoupling the learning part of education from student assessment and degree-granting.

Wisconsin officials tout the UW Flexible Option as the first to offer multiple, competency-based bachelor’s degrees from a public university system. Officials encourage students to complete their education independently through online courses, which have grown in popularity through efforts by companies such as Coursera, edX and Udacity.

via College Degree, No Class Time Required –

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Michael Littman’s new blog: End-user programming for household devices Why Big Data Mostly Can’t Help Improve Teaching

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Bijan Parsia  |  February 11, 2013 at 2:57 am

    I’m sure that there are many assessment experts who are far better than me, so certainly, someone else could do what I could not.

    Eh…I’m not so sure, esp. if it’s a massive single thing. One thing about having scattered assessment across assessors and courses is that you basically are sampling from the student in more situations. It helps smooth out luck or extraordinary flukey prep or a crap test or two.

    I’d be interested in anything on assessing prospective employees. It’s well known that interviews suck, but exams don’t seem super promising either. Are the major corporations which administer a competency exam? What do they look like? Certification exams are widely derided…how do they fare? Exams like the Bar Exam don’t seem to do much except enrich bar school prep.

    (Consider the recent Dartmouth AP kerfluffle.

    “The psychology department got more and more suspicious about how good an indicator a 5 on the A.P. psych exam was for academic success,” said Hakan Tell, a classics professor who heads Dartmouth’s Committee on Instruction, so the department decided to give a condensed version of the Psych 1 final to incoming students instead of giving them credits.

    Of more than 100 students who had scored a 5 on the A.P. exam, 90 percent failed the Dartmouth test. The other 10 percent were given Dartmouth credit.

    I’d be very interested to see how students having taken the course would do a year after taking it, esp. if they’d had no psych tests in between.)

  • 2. rdm  |  February 11, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    I think a problem here is that competence is both contextual and predictive. A person can be adept in context A and lost in related context B and without having a deep understanding of both contexts you can at best have an approximate understanding of this issue.

    But, even worse, in the context of relevant computer skills, “success” probably has more to do with a person’s drive and interest than the person’s knowledge and education. For example, quite frequently in the context of building new programs (and many other business contexts) a person will use social skills and the abilities of people they have comfortable access to, to address any shortcomings in relevant formal knowledge. But, also, the ability to judge the relevance of a set of priorities will trump the ability to address any individual set of priorities when it comes to doing useful work in a constrained resource situation.

    Anyways, I read the above essay as pointing out these difficulties (albeit from a different perspective from what I used). The very concept of “assessment” is somewhat dubious outside of highly restricted contexts.

  • […] enjoyed the reference to the proposed “New University of California” (whose online-tests-only degrees sound like what the University of Wisconsin just agreed to) as “particularly […]

  • 4. MOOC roundup | Gas station without pumps  |  July 28, 2013 at 1:04 pm

    […]… Here Mark points out that the University of Wisconsin plan to offer a degree almost entirely by testing is doomed to be a second-class degree, because the basic educational premises are flawed.  Here is a quote from the beginning of the post: […]


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