New Orleans — Academic departments should develop their own intelligent systems for measuring students’ learning or risk having foolish assessment systems foisted upon them by legislators or accreditors, two economists said here Friday during the annual meeting of the American Economic Association.
“It’s important to resist the urge to measure only things that are easily measured, rather than what is actually important,” said Richard W. Stratton, an associate professor of economics at the University of Akron. In 2002, Mr. Stratton’s department developed an assessment plan based on undergraduates’ mastery of the Hansen proficiencies, a list of skills created by W. Lee Hansen, a professor emeritus of economics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison.
Mr. Stratton said that it is vital to do such projects on a departmentwide basis, rather than simply trying to measure student learning in a single course.
Beginning with the class of 2006, economics majors at Akron have been required to build electronic portfolios that demonstrate their mastery of various skills. The higher-level Hansen proficiencies — the “ability to create new knowledge and do independent research” and the “ability to ask relevant questions” — weren’t well cultivated under the old curriculum, Mr. Stratton said. Now students are required to write sophisticated “capstone” research papers during their senior year.
Steven C. Myers, an associate professor of economics at Akron, said that too few economics departments have similar assessment plans. He and Mr. Stratton surveyed department chairs and found that senior undergraduates were rarely required to write research papers, especially at institutions with doctoral economics programs.
The Akron program was praised during the panel by Stephen Buckles, a senior lecturer in economics at Vanderbilt University. “Even if your students aren’t going to go to graduate school and become professional economists,” Mr. Buckles said, “it’s important to train them to work with economic concepts to create new knowledge.”
Mr. Buckles likened the Akron plan to the “ConcepTests” for physics students developed by Eric Mazur, a professor of physics at Harvard University.
Mr. Stratton and Mr. Myers’s paper, which they wrote with Michael A. Nelson, a professor of economics at Akron, is available on the association’s Web site. —David Glenn