Using its classrooms as laboratories, Arizona State University is launching a mammoth experiment to determine how well it does its most basic job: teaching college students.
Every ASU academic department will have students take the Collegiate Learning Assessment, which measures critical thinking ability, during the school year that starts Aug. 20.
The university is one of 156 nationwide that publicly acknowledges using the assessment. But ASU intends to employ it far more extensively than any of the other schools.
The test results will help university officials find what teaching methodology works best, what programs best prepare students for future careers and which need upgrades, said provost Betty Capaldi.
In the five years since ASU President Michael Crow arrived at the university, many academic departments have merged and reorganized to focus on issues — such as sustainability — rather than traditional subjects.
Professors from different fields are jointly teaching a slew of new classes, making ASU an unusual higher education specimen.
“We’re a good place to do some research,” Capaldi said.
For much of its history, academia has rigorously tested its students, but rarely itself.
When students failed, universities placed most of the blame on the students. While most higher education institutions have taken steps to ensure students finish with their bachelor’s degree, until recently there has been little analysis to determine if these efforts work.
ASU’s mathematics and statistics department for years had new students take a placement test to determine what level of algebra they should begin with. The idea behind such placement tests is that students who enroll in the correct class are more likely to pass.
But the department didn’t actually use the test results to assign students to a class. Students could choose whatever class they wanted.
“Why did they do it? I don’t know,” said Capaldi, who just finished her first year as ASU provost. “That was my question.”
Students now must enroll in math classes based on their placement test results.
One subject ASU plans to study with the Collegiate Learning Assessment is engineering.
The Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering at the Tempe campus offers a more traditional, lecture-based curriculum. In Mesa, ASU Polytechnic’s engineering degree program provides students a more hands-on education, favoring technical skills over theory.
“They do have different visions and different entrance requirements and all the rest,” said Roger Benjamin, president of the Council for Aid to Education, which administers the learning assessment.
ASU hopes to measure how the “old school” engineering program compares with the alternative at Polytechnic, Capaldi said.
In addition to the university-wide learning assessment, Capaldi said she is requiring each of ASU’s 23 deans to submit a report in September detailing how their departments want to be graded.
The reports will include a list of elite programs at other universities that ASU’s departments aspire to compete with. Also, the deans have to detail how each program will measure what students are learning and how their Arizona State educations help them after graduation.
“The tricky thing is figuring out what they’re actually applying once they get out there,” said William Petuskey, head of the chemistry and biochemistry department. “Chemistry students go off into careers of all kinds.”
A number of ASU departments have for years tried to survey alumni to find out what graduates think of their education a few years after starting their careers.
Petuskey said poor response rates have hampered the efforts; about 10 percent of chemistry alumni respond when contacted.
Several of ASU’s academic officials said their departments would use tests that measure how well students have learned the material to judge how professors are doing.
Some programs have been administering such exams for years so their graduates can become certified to enter their field. Randy Virden, a community resources and development professor, said his students take a test written by the National Recreation and Park Association.
ASU departments teaching in fields that require certification, like the law, have long received test results that show whether they prepared students.
Capaldi said that assessing departments that teach in the arts with tests would likely be more difficult than those that deal in math and science.
However, Kwang-Wu Kim, dean of the Herberger College of the Arts, said his college can be subjected to roughly the same type of measurements as others.
“On the surface, sometimes the arts look very different from other pieces of the university. Our focus is self-expression,” Kim said. “But actually, learning in the arts is very similar to learning across the university.”
Even with all the review and reformation under way, Capaldi said ASU officials would move cautiously before making dramatic changes to anything.
“It’s actually quite mysterious,” said Capaldi, referring to a college education. “It changes a person in such a dramatic way, that’s why you don’t want to mess with it. We don’t know which part is important.”