The LEAP Challenge Blog

Unscripted Learning: Chinese Students on the Essence of a Liberal Education

On October 16, Inside Higher Ed (IHE) posted a truly wonderful interview with three Chinese students who studied at Bowdoin, Bucknell, and Franklin and Marshall, respectively.   As someone who spends a lot of time making and listening to arguments on behalf of liberal education, I have never seen it better done.

It was especially heartwarming to see these students recognize their own responsibility to help chart a sense of coherent educational direction in the context of the many-splendored options that a liberal arts college opens to its students.  I took special note of their clear explanation that a key difference between the liberal arts approach and their own earlier schooling was the determination to wean students from any inclination to come up with only the “prescribed” answers.

This is indeed what liberal education does at its best.  It helps students develop the wherewithal to deal with questions that are both important and unscripted.

Still glowing, and only wishing I could meet these students, I then noticed an opinion piece, also published in IHE that day, titled “The Limitations of Portfolios.” Curious, I opened it, only to discover the authors—all colleagues with whom I have worked and for whom I have great respect—going on and on and on about the necessity of standardization as the only possibly valid strategy for institutional accountability for learning.  The subject of their ire was AAC&U’s own efforts to move students’ authentic work, produced across the curriculum, to the center of both campus assessment efforts and external accountability.  (See AAC&U’s board statement, “Our Students’ Best Work” and my previous blog post on this topic.)

The juxtaposition of perspectives could hardly be more striking or more chilling.  Even as the students were celebrating an education that fosters individualized development and judgment—and recommending that kind of learning warmly to their fellow Chinese students—the psychometricians were almost fiercely determined to examine those minds under the equivalent of laboratory conditions.

Use students’ own distinctive work as the basis for assessment?  Much too unstandardized!  Or, we might say, insufficiently prescribed.

The three Chinese students interviewed by IHE have written an entire book about their experience of liberal arts education, American-style.   Which would you rather use to assess the quality and level of their learning in college? The evidence of their collective “best work”?  Or their performance on a 90-minute test taken under standardized conditions?

Yes, it’s more complex to assess students’ authentic work than it is to score a standardized test taken under identical conditions.  But this is a challenge that is well worth our shared effort.