Higher Ed: Please Show Your Work. Make Student Learning Visible to Employers.

Remember when your math teacher in grade school required you to “show your work,” so that they could see the steps you took to solve a problem?  Whether your answer was correct or incorrect, they could see the extent to which you had mastered the problem solving technique and identify areas where additional practice was needed. 

What if college transcripts were revised to embody the “show your work” principle, so that employers could see the skills graduates gain in college?  Like an answer-only solution to a math problem, a course grade reported in a traditional transcript doesn’t show the skills that produced the result. By revising transcripts to document intentionally designed learning activities, institutions of higher education (IHEs) could help employers see what students know and can do as a result of their college courses and other educationally purposeful college experiences beyond the classroom. 

Imagine a college transcript that describes a student’s learning activities such as oral presentations, writing assignments, teamwork, critical thinking, use of technology, and applying skills specific to a discipline.  Such a transcript could provide valuable information to prospective employers about a student’s transferable skills and competencies. Some IHEs are developing innovative methods to document co-curricular student learning in these ways (AACRAO, 2016).  For example, a campus program engages students as Alternative Break Peer Leaders: with professional staff oversight, students in this co-curricular program lead a group of fellow students in an immersive service experience during a scheduled break in the academic year.  Student leaders in this role 1) organize a community service trip for a group of students in another city; 2) plan the group’s service work, in collaboration with the external agency or community that is the focus of the service; 3) make arrangements for travel, housing, dining, managing health and safety issues for participating students; and 4) resolve problems that occur during the trip.  With systematic documentation of their engagement in the learning activities that comprise this peer leader role, a “show your work” transcript could report that these student leaders applied and developed skills in problem-solving, teamwork, communication, and leadership.

Although this example describes a co-curricular program designed to develop students as leaders, and does not produce grades or credit hours, a similar model could be used to document learning activities in courses.  IHEs already create lots of information about student learning, but it is not systematically collected or organized at the institution level. For example, a course syllabus names the intended learning outcomes for the course and the learning activities designed to engage students in ways that produce the stated learning goals.  Each assigned learning activity engages students in applying knowledge and practicing skills relevant to the learning goals of the course. So that they can assign a course grade, educators already keep records – often in a learning management system (LMS) – of each students’ engagement in course learning activities; they record an evaluation of each student’s performance on each assignment.  While this specific student learning data may be collected in a course-level data system (LMS), it is not recorded in the student’s institution-level education record or managed in the student information system and, therefore, is not available to report on a transcript. To correct this, information systems can be redesigned; technology tools should serve to help an organization achieve its objectives.  

Showing student work on transcripts makes the IHE’s work more visible, as well.  Documenting the learning activities designed to achieve the learning goals shows the work of the institution, as well as the work of the student.  This transparency of educational purpose and intentional design can help students and educators share responsibility for student learning, as IHEs shift from a focus on instruction to a learning-centered system of education.  Increasing the visibility of the intentional design of educational programs can help students understand what’s expected of them and the learning gains they can expect to achieve.

IHEs are working to answer calls to provide better evidence of the value of college and to improve the quality of education for all students.  Improving quality requires an examination of the system that is producing current results, so that areas where improvement is needed can be identified.  Systematically documenting student engagement in learning activities reveals the system – shows the work – that is producing current results, while also improving the institution’s data to inform future improvement.  Improving the quality of student learning data advances an institution’s ability to report student learning achievement on transcripts; conduct analyses to gain insights into student persistence, timely graduation, and post-graduation employment; and to advance institutional effectiveness. 

Higher education, please show your work!

American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), Comprehensive Learner Record Project, Assessing and documenting beyond-the-classroom learning.  https://www.aacrao.org/resources/newsletters-blogs/aacrao-connect/article/assessing-and-documenting-beyond-the-classroom-learning