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A Strange Way to Evaluate Learning

I thought at first that the essay by Adam F. Falk, the president of Williams College, was a satire ("In Defense of the Living, Breathing Professor," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 29). But then I realized that he was dead serious. Referring to the ability of students "to write effectively, argue persuasively, solve problems creatively, adapt and learn independently," he maintains that "by far, the factor that correlates most highly with gains in these skills is the amount of personal contact a student has with professors."

According to Falk, the curriculum, the choice of major, and the GPA do not predict self-reported gains in these critical outcomes nearly as well as "how much time a student spent with professors." In other words, a professor can be a dud in the classroom and yet still be effective in helping students achieve the stated goals. How is that possible? I don't doubt that the relationship between professors and students is an important factor in learning. But that's not what Falk argues. Instead, he asserts that it's the number of hours a professor logs with students after the bell rings that counts the most. I fail to see what that has to do with instruction.

The rebuttal is that not all learning takes place in the classroom. Fair enough. But "personal contact" can mean having coffee and talking about the latest fashions. I'm sure that's a pleasant way to spend time, but how does that translate into, say, being able to write effectively? I assume that the time spent with students does not involve tutoring because Falk never uses the word. The irony, of course, is that when teachers in K-12 complain about the need for small classes so that they have a better chance to know students and design lessons in line with their needs and interests, they are seen as making excuses.

I realize that teaching in college and in K-12 is different. What purports to be sound instruction in the former (lecturing to a passive audience) is the antithesis of what is considered sound instruction in the latter (appropriate practice and knowledge of results to an active audience). But Falk's position stretches credulity. Nevertheless, it will be taken as gospel by parents who are now packing off their children to college for the first time.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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