Toward A Signature Assessment for Liberal Education

October 25, 2007

In the introduction to Educating Lawyers: Preparing for the Profession of Law, a book based on the Carnegie Foundation’s study of legal education, Carnegie President Lee Shulman notes that formal preparation for virtually all professions can be characterized by a distinctive set of instructional practices that have come to be called “signature pedagogies.” These are characteristic “forms of instruction that leap to mind when we first think about the preparation of members of particular professions.” The first year of law school, for example, is dominated by the quasi-Socratic “case-dialogue method” where the authoritative instructor in the front of a typically large class engages individual students in a dialogue around judicial opinions in legal cases. These distinctive forms of teaching are not limited to higher education and professional settings. They characterize all levels of education, including the teaching of the very young. If you observed a teacher seated in a circle of about eight children, each holding a book on a small table, and one reading aloud, with the teacher occasionally responding, questioning or correcting, you would be witnessing the distinctive pedagogy of early reading instruction at work.

Why is the study of such pedagogies of interest? Here is Shulman:

[T]hese pedagogical signatures can enlighten us about the personalities, dispositions and cultures of the fields to which they are attached. Moreover, to the extent that they serve as primary means of instruction and socialization for neophytes, they are worthy of our analyses and interpretations, better to understand both their virtues and their flaws.

A similar examination of the distinctive forms of assessment that characterize various educational settings, from primary school through undergraduate education and beyond, would tell us much about the “personalities, dispositions, and cultures” of these settings. As I have argued elsewhere, a discipline’s assessments, the things the discipline requires its apprentices to know and be able to do, reveal in a very direct way what the discipline values, what it deems essential for neophytes to learn.

The question then arises, are there signature assessments that uniquely characterize the evaluation of students across professions, across disciplines and across educational levels? For professions that require formal training at either a university or professional school, the answer seems to be “yes.” More often than not, two distinctive assessments are required, one forming an integral part of professional preparation, the other required for actual practice. In legal education, there is the ubiquitous, three-hour end-of-semester examinations during the first year of law school that for most students determines the very nature and course of their legal careers. This is followed, after graduation, by the equally ubiquitous Multistate Bar Examination.

In teacher education, there is the familiar image of one or more veteran teachers observing from the back of the room a candidate teacher surrounded by a small group of beginning readers or querying a student at the blackboard about long division. Before a license is awarded, candidates in most states must also sit for Praxis I (successor to the National Teacher Examination), a professionally developed standardized test developed by the Educational Testing Service that gauges candidates’ command of basic mathematics and basic English Language Arts. Depending upon their intended teaching field and level, candidate teachers may also be required to take Praxis II, an examination of their command of disciplinary content and their ability to teach that content.

Are there signature assessments that characterize undergraduate education? The multiple-choice test and the open book essay come immediately to mind, but these are not distinctive in the sense that one could distinguish them from any number of non-undergraduate educational contexts. What of liberal education? Is there a signature assessment for liberal education? Inasmuch as a signature pedagogy for liberal education has proven difficult to find [but see Gale (2004) for a cogent argument that the undergraduate seminar may fit the bill] it should not surprise that a signature assessment for liberal education is equally difficult to find.

Were a college or university to attempt such an assessment, it might consider the approach taken by professional test developers. The process begins with a conceptual definition and description of the construct to be assessed. This is followed by the development of a framework and a table of specifications, that is, a specified body of content knowledge crossed with a set of particular skills and proficiencies. These frameworks and specifications are essentially the blueprint for the actual development of the assessment. Depending upon the disciplinary context, the result can be something as straightforward as a multiple-choice test of disciplinary knowledge, or a series of vignettes that the student must analyze in some way, or, as in the case of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, a large and complex portfolio that includes examples of a candidate’s lesson plans, samples of student products and candidate feedback, and videotapes with accompanying commentary of the teacher leading both a large group discussion and a small group exercise.

What of a framework and table of specifications for liberal learning? In their background paper for a grant program jointly sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation and the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Huber and Hutchings (2004) explored some of the possibilities and challenges in assessing “integrative learning,” a central component of a liberal education. But a framework and table of specifications for liberal education has not, to my knowledge, been formally undertaken. As Huber and Hutchings note, the assessment challenges are daunting. Not the least of these challenges is collaboration and hopefully consensus among college faculty – a notoriously cantankerous group. The assessment also implies more focus on student self-assessment and a consideration of the kinds of broadening opportunities that colleges and universities make available to students (e.g., community-based learning). The senior capstone report and the “learning portfolio” are leading candidates for such a complex assessment, but they are by no means the final word.

Whether a student intends to practice law, social work or marine biology, the notion persists that her education should not only prepare her for such a life’s work, but should also instill certain habits of mind. It should prepare her to participate as a literate and informed citizen in the life of her community and the larger society.

To be sure, some educators decry the apparent decline in emphasis on liberal education and the view by many faculty and students that “General Studies” are a nuisance, something to be “gotten out of the way.” But the current hegemony of professional education notwithstanding, the liberally educated individual as an educational ideal seems to be an idea that will not die. And an assessment or series of assessments that can capture a coherent vision of liberal education may well be the most important assessment challenge in higher education today.