In Higher Ed Programs, How to Measure What Students Are Learning

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Recently, higher education institutions have found themselves under pressure to show evidence of student learning. In a recent article in the Hechinger Report, University of Bloomington professor and head of the National Survey of Student Engagement Alexander McCormick theorized that this has to do with the continually rising costs of these programs. Given the size of their investments, consumers and policymakers are eager to see an ROI on ungrad and graduate studies.

In grade school and high school, that ROI is measured by standardized test scores. In college, hard data on student progress is harder to come by, according to McCormick.

“When you look at college mission statements, they’re loaded with grand pronouncements about the skills and habits of mind they’re going to inspire in their students. [Yet] even as they teach their students to back up their claims with evidence, they don’t have much evidence to back up those claims.”

While McCormick’s National Survey of Student Engagement is designed to provide some of that data—including details on how much students study, how often they meet with faculty, and how frequently they participate in class discussions—most participating schools decline to make their performance public. Similarly, efforts to employ standardized testing have been largely kept internal.

Part of the problem is that, unlike in grade school, where the learning focus is on facts, data, and rules, a significant piece of the college curriculum is about learning and developing softer skills—all those “habits of mind” the mission statements refer to.

And, traditionally, it’s next to impossible to objectively measure that kind of learning.

But today, many skills that were once considered art can be approached like sciences.

New innovations in artificial intelligence, machine learning, and vocal, text, and facial analysis have enabled researchers to quantify dozens of aspects of human behavior—aspects such as leadership, teamwork, interpersonal skills, and communication—empowering us to more effectively predict and influence the way we interact with one another. As a result, higher education programs now have access to many of the tools they need to provide objective data on the progress their students are making in these skills.

At Quantified, the behavior we’re most interested in measuring and tracking is communication, which we know to be the number-one skill recruiters look for in newly graduated hires, and which we firmly believe to be the foundation of successful leadership.

We’ve spent years studying the communication research of academics from all over the country, building a database of hundreds of thousands of communication samples from business leaders, politicians, celebrities, TED speakers, professors, and myriad other professionals across the world, and leveraging our findings to create and perfect AI-driven algorithms to measure the impact of any given user’s communication. We can compare a speaker to colleagues, competitors, and aspirational benchmarks. We can provide actionable, data-driven recommendations for improvement in fifty critical communication metrics. And we can track users’ progress and improvement as they learn.

We’ve used our platform at higher education institutions across the United States—including the University of Texas at Austin, Stanford University, and the Wharton School, among others—to help professors drive quantifiable, lasting improvement in their students’ communication skills. In fact, at Wharton, we helped create an average improvement of 17.4 percent across a group of fifty-four eMBA students.

While our aim at Quantified is to help leaders and aspiring leaders achieve their professional goals and increase their impact through building world-class communication skills, there’s no reason higher education institutions couldn’t use data like this—and similar data on other soft skills—to start providing the desired evidence of student progress.

If a university’s mission is about helping students develop the so-called “intangibles” of leadership, we think that’s great. And, for the skeptics looking for the ROI of college, we’re on our way to providing proof.