The Mystery Behind “B +,” or Why SLO Assessment Matters

Modesto Junior College
Santa Ana College
Skyline College

Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges.

Consider the following scenario: Two distinct concepts are taught in a course. One involves the theoretical underpinnings and the other is practice within the field of study. The theory is covered during the lecture when the professor explains the thinking that has gone into the subject and its evolution, and the practical aspect of the course is covered during the lab, where students get to put into practice what they have learned. For example, an ESL instructor could explain in a lecture format the rules of grammar and teach students the syntax that governs the structure of a sentence in a particular tense. At the end of the lecture, he or she could give students a short quiz to see to what extent they understood the concepts taught to them. Then, the instructor could put students in groups to practice the rules that were explained and at the end of the activity ask them to roleplay a dialogue. At that point, the instructor, together with the students in the class, could observe how grammatical rules are applied and to what extent individual students have mastered the skills.

Faculty might attempt the same process in any of their courses. They can identify the theory and practice parts of the course and name them in terms of what it is that students in the class will be able to do once they learn these two distinct concepts. For example, as a result of the lecture, students will be able to evaluate the historical trends in the discipline, and as a result of the lab students will be able to analyze the practical implications of the concepts taught, in their daily lives, as practitioners in the given field of study.

As readers may have realized by now, this scenario is a process of SLO design and assessment.

At the end of such work, grading is going to take place. A given student might excel in the theoretical part of the course, passing a multiple-choice test with 97%, yet score only 73% on the practical application. The average of the two scores gives 85%, which could qualify the student for a B+ in that instructors defined grading scale. However, without breaking down the success rates of individual SLOs in theory and practice, an overall grade of B+ does not really tell to what extent the student has acquired one skill over the other. The grade does not, and by design, cannot give any information about the extent to which the student has acquired the theoretical understanding of the course and how well he or she can apply the theory into practice.

In classroom instruction, professors are responsible for the content of their courses but may feel that they are off the hook once grades are issued. They may believe that they have done their jobs: they taught, they assessed, and they graded. A B+ grade is high enough for them to rest assured that students will do just fine moving forward and away from their classrooms. The problem is that the grade does not tell the whole story: the student may not have made the connection between theory and practice, perhaps because something is missing from the way that the course content was delivered. Professors should want to know what the students still need to learn. While faculty can also consider attendance, classroom participation, and extra credit, none of these activities truly supports the conviction that the student has learned anything in the classroom. Learning can be inferred but is shrouded in mystery hiding behind a B+.

Faculty members of a department might love to indulge in the analysis of the SLO assessment data with colleagues to see the trends in academic attainment of the theoretical and practical skills of the course. Students might do well in theory because they already possess reading and study skills they acquired in previous courses, but they might fail in practice because they really do not understand how to apply the theories. Faculty should want to know what professional development the department needs to impact learning or what resources are needed to facilitate learning.

Faculty leaders responsible for student transfer would also want to know what skills students take away from classes when they move on to a four-year university. If a professor at a four-year school asks what the students can do, faculty want to be sure that the students can clearly answer that they can move seamlessly between theory and practice in their field of study. They want to be sure that a B+ will guarantee that the students have the foundation to succeed.

The same can be said of future employers. A B+ means little to them. At the time of a job interview, students need to be able to clearly articulate the competencies they have attained in the classroom that are relevant to the position for which they are applying. As such, students may list the following key skills on their resumes: critical thinking, problem solving, and small group leadership, among others. While these skills may be covered under the B+ umbrella, even students do not know to what extent they really mastered the skills.

The issue is that certain GPAs qualify students for enrollment in certain courses, but those grades may or may not translate into actual competencies. A key responsibility as educators is to ensure that all can arrive at a consensus of what the core knowledge, skills, and attitudes or mindsets are and the criteria by which to evaluate student work, to move from quantifying via a GPA to articulating via SLOs. Course completion does not guarantee nor is it the best suited measure of student learning. Colleges have a long way ahead if assessment of what students can do will guide the discussion for the benefit of students.