Thursday, September 10, 2009

Denise from Des Plaines with a Dollop of Reason on Experiential Learning.

There is no doubt that (1) Frances' administrators asked her the wrong question (it should have been "Does this portfolio show that Portfolio Kid (PK) has mastered the subject matter taught in Introduction to Field?" rather than "Could this student have earned a C?"), (2) they asked it of the wrong person (they should have asked someone they thought was competent to provide an answer the school was prepared to stand behind), (3) Frances provided the only reasonable answer to the question they ought to have asked her, and (4) with respect to this student in this case they behaved as if they were running a diploma mill. Assuming that the school ordinarily does not function as a diploma mill, someone has really dropped the ball on this one -- either PK has enlisted the school's help in a scam or the school has failed him as a student. Retention is all well and good, but if you retain your students only at the cost of educating them you will end up with bigger problems than dropouts.

However, I don't think that it is necessarily unreasonable to give students credit for certain classes if they provide adequate portfolios. The whole two exams and three short essays bit is irrelevant. Those things aren't necessary to master the subject or even to prove that you have mastered the subject. They are simply the way a given professor, department, or school has chosen to assess mastery, and the school is within its rights to offer another way to assess mastery, just as some students show that they have mastered high school algebra by passing a placement test and others show that they have mastered it by passing a developmental class. For that matter, if the school accepts transfer credits it's entirely possible that students have credit for the class with three exams and an in-class presentation or something.

Frances' problem, aside from being asked a question she can't possibly answer by people who don't take her answer seriously anyway, appears to be that nobody has really thought through what a portfolio should look like. I'm sure there are many different ways to present a portfolio, but the school should have been able to tell, before even bothering Frances in the first place, that an autobiography, a bibliography, and a summary of a textbook cannot possibly tell anyone whether Portfolio Kid has learned enough stuff that he might have been able to pass Introduction to Field, period.

But suppose that Portfolio Kid had been given instructions about a journal to keep -- say one including notes on everything he read, including a textbook that had been assigned to Introduction to Field students at Frances' school in the last x semesters and at least y relevant articles or chapters he had found in order to help himself understand the material in each chapter of the textbook, a record of questions he had and how he answered them to his satisfaction, and brief examples of phenomena that he understood better after having read the textbook and the additional reading or that he did not think were adequately explained by what he had read -- and one or more research papers to write -- with some guidance on the sorts of topics that were acceptable and instructions on length and the number of items in the bibliography. PK ought to be able to manage that with access to one textbook, the Internet, a public library with access to inter-library loan, and effort. And a student who already pretty much knows the contents of an Introduction to Field class ought to be able to put a portfolio like that together reasonably quickly and easily, even if temporary confusion that is rectified by finding answers to one's questions has to be faked.

That kind of guidance should help PK produce something that would allow someone like Frances to determine whether or not it would be appropriate to give the student credit for the course, and unless PK falls into the "unskilled and unaware" category (that article ought to be handed out to all college students anyway, as an explanation for why professors insist on spending entire semesters on things that any idiot can learn in 20 minutes on YouTube) it's in his interest to give her the documentation she needs to do her job. It may be that he just did a lousy job because he thinks that most of what his teachers do is a huge waste of time, but I can easily imagine someone who isn't very familiar with how grading works answering a question like "Why do you think you should get credit for this class on the basis of your portfolio?" by moaning about lousy access to post-secondary education instead of describing the research he did in order to learn what sorts of thing Introduction to Field students are expected to learn, the efforts he made in order to learn those things, and evidence that he was successful.

Let's hope that Frances' administrators either abandon the credit-by-portfolio plan or start doing it right.