January 2014 Issue • Volume 42 • Issue 1

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When Buying Peaches or Measuring Learning Complexities Abound

Irving Franke, University of Maryland-University College, iffranke31@msn.com

An ongoing issue at my university, University of Maryland-University College (UMUC) is assessing what our students are learning in their educational experience, both in the near term and long term. This is quality control in higher education, consistent with the trend in many institutional areas regarding results-based outcomes.

I’ve been teaching sociology at UMUC since l981, ever concerned with teaching effectively, and, most recently, ever vigilant that the administration in its zeal to standardize course content doesn’t jeopardize my unique contribution as an experienced sociologist. The trend now for instructors teaching the same course is making sure the course content adheres strictly to the course outcomes. I will examine this issue more carefully by drawing the analogy between the act of buying of peaches and the act of measuring outcomes.

The next time you buy a pound of peaches, think about our task as sociology professors to measure course outcomes. As teachers we strive to improve the quality of our work in the delivery of our knowledge. To link the two together, a question arises: What are we measuring? In the case of the peaches, we not only weigh them but notice their ripeness and whether they are free of bruises in order to identify their quality. The analogy to course outcomes is to assess them qualitatively and quantitatively (i.e., what the content is and how much of it is being learned).

To measure, we first have to know what we are measuring. It is easy to know what a peach is. It is not so easy to determine what the content is in a stated course outcome. Let’s examine one of the sociology course outcomes at UMUC that is exemplar for its clarity:  “Evaluate how theories of modernity, post-modernity, and globalization explain the relationship between the individual and society.”

More Clarification Needed

We are asking students to discriminate among a set of theories relevant to three periods of social change in the sociology literature: modernity, post-modernity, and globalization. There is controversy in contemporary sociology as to whether they are three separate periods or simply one. Moreover, some would say that globalization is an outgrowth of the modern capitalist economy on a global scale. Some would say that post-modernism is an outgrowth of the mass media effects of the existing capitalist system in the promotion of consumerism. The question is, should the students evaluate a set of theories of each or a set for just one?

The next question is, what are the relevant theories that students are to evaluate? There are many possibilities. We are studying societies, cultures, economic systems, and political systems on a global level. As I review books on general sociological theory and theories of globalization I am struck by the fact that functionalism, conflict theory, and social constructionism may not be adequate explanations. There is much to be clarified here regarding sociological theories that students are asked to evaluate.

There is one more dimension. These theories explain the changes that occur in the relationship or interaction between the individual and society. We are not just explaining the essence of how individuals are impacted by these macro-level forces, but how the relationships are altered between the individual and society. Is this an objective question about that alteration in terms of changing roles in a social structure or a subjective one? Or are we referring to a theory of reflexivity?

So let’s go back to the purchase of peaches. How does this exercise apply to measuring course outcomes? What are we measuring? I will contradict myself: Vagueness has an unanticipated benefit. It has sharpened my critical thinking to work through the fog. Maybe the analogy doesn’t hold after all that we may equate assessing outcomes the way we buy peaches. We try our best to communicate clearly about what we expect students to learn. The first step is to think through for ourselves what we are trying to teach. In the process we may acknowledge that yes we can assess whether students are learning, but learning what? Are we as teachers instilling flexible and open minds, which is something difficult to measure? That’s not going to guarantee a student a job nor help the student to adjust to a bureaucracy. Yet, it may help students better understand and appreciate that social reality is more complicated and more elusive than what it appears on the surface.

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