In 2013 the Social Science Research Council (SSRC) initiated the Measuring College Learning (MCL) project because SSRC recognized a pressing need for greater clarity, intentionality, and quality in U.S. higher education. MCL responded to this need by bringing faculty and related experts together from six disciplines and fields of study: biology, business, communication, economics, history, and sociology.
Over a two-year period, each of the six disciplinary panels worked through a consensus-driven process to define a limited set of empirically measurable “essential concepts and competencies” that students should gain over time. These essential concepts and competencies were explicitly framed as foundational or minimum essential learning outcomes, rather than the sum total of everything that could or should be taught during an undergraduate course of study. The MCL frameworks that emerged from this process were designed from the onset as jumping off points for departments and disciplinary associations working to advance curriculum and assessment.
The MCL panel for sociology was made up of 12 scholars with expertise on teaching, learning, and assessment in the discipline: Jeanne Ballantine (Wright State University), William Carbonaro (University of Notre Dame), Paula England (New York University), Susan Ferguson (Grinnell College), Sally T. Hillsman (American Sociological Association), Katherine McClelland (Franklin and Marshall College), Matthew McKeever (Mount Holyoke College), Aaron Pallas (Teachers College, Columbia University), Richard Pitt (Vanderbilt University), Margaret Weigers Vitullo (American Sociological Association), Theodore Wagenaar (Miami University), and Sarah Willie-LeBreton (Swarthmore College).
Synthesizing and expanding upon the panel discussions, Ferguson and Carbonaro co-authored a white paper that can be found in the forthcoming volume, to be published by Jossey Bass, Improving Quality in American Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessments for the 21st Century. Written for faculty in the discipline as well as broader higher education audiences, the white paper is engaging, informative, well-reasoned, and rigorously reviewed. Ferguson and Carbonaro do an exceptional job of describing the current state of the field (what are the resources that currently exist to help faculty define and measure learning outcomes in their discipline?) as well as offering a compelling vision for the future (how can we build on these existing resources in productive and innovative ways?).
The sociology white paper, “Measuring College Learning in Sociology,” is also publically available on the SSRC Education Research Program’s website as part of the MCL Resource Center (highered.ssrc.org).
Concepts and Competencies
At the center of each of the MCL white papers is an innovative learning outcomes framework that articulates a set of “essential concepts and competencies” for undergraduate-level learning in the discipline. Essential concepts and competencies are deep understandings and complex skills that faculty believe are fundamental to the discipline, valuable to students, and worth emphasizing given limited time and resources. The MCL learning outcomes frameworks emerge from, and are part of, the MCL white papers, but they can be used as stand-alone resources.
Improving the assessment of student learning in higher education is a significant undertaking, and one that must be approached thoughtfully and deliberately. Accordingly, MCL is dedicated to the following core principles:
- Faculty should be at the center of defining and developing transparent learning outcome standards for undergraduates;
- Students from all backgrounds and institutions should be given a fair opportunity to demonstrate their skills when transferring from one institution to another and when transitioning into the workforce;
- Measures of student learning should be rigorous and high-quality and should yield data that allow for comparisons over time and between institutions;
- Assessment tools should be used by institutions on a voluntary basis;
- Any single measure of student learning should be part of a larger holistic assessment plan.
ASA’s Task Force on Liberal Learning and the Sociology Major, Third Edition (LL3)
In August of 2014 ASA Council established a task force to update the Association’s oft-cited volume Liberal Learning and the Sociology Major, Updated. The impetus for the new edition, which will be released in 2017, was centered on three key changes in higher education: the proliferation of online courses and programs; the increasing emphasis by the government, accreditors, and families on employment outcomes in the liberal arts; and increasing pressure from within and beyond the discipline to establish a core for the undergraduate sociology curriculum. The LL3 Task Force has 21 members who represent a wide array of sociology department and institutional types, ranging from research-intensive universities to community colleges. Five key members of the LL3 Task Force are also part of the MCL project: Paula England, ASA-past President; Susan Ferguson, Task Force Co-Chair; Jeanne Ballantine, Wright State University; Ted Wagenaar, Miami University; and Margaret Weigers Vitullo, Task Force ASA Liaison.
The synergies and resources that are present in these two projects, which are working in coordinated collaboration across ASA and SSRC, represent an historic moment of opportunity to advance teaching and learning in sociology, including meaningful assessment. The publication of Improving Quality in American Higher Education and the “Measuring College Learning in Sociology” white paper within it, represents an important milestone for this collaboration.
Next Steps for Sociology
ASA has a long history of supporting teaching and learning in sociology. It publishes the journal Teaching Sociology as well as TRAILS: the Teaching Resources and Innovation Library for Sociology, and has a large and vibrant membership section on Teaching and Learning. The ASA also has worked with departments to provide guidance on curriculum, assessment, and program review. Building on this history, ASA and SSRC are working together on plans for phase two of the MCL project, exploring options for collaborating with sociology departments to build out and pilot assessments based on the learning outcomes frameworks presented in the “Measuring College Learning in Sociology” white paper.
Both ASA and the SSRC Measuring College Learning Project are committed to the idea that defining essential learning outcomes in a discipline should be an iterative process that will evolve and change over time. This next phase of the project will engage sociology departments, faculty, employer groups, and other stakeholders concerned with improving student learning in sociology.