Documenting Learning

Education reform is coming, although probably not in ways you might have been thinking. There is a nascent movement to urge the Academy to change how it records learning. Why? Evidence of mastery of narrow disciplinary knowledge is not enough for many stakeholders in our society. More and more, interested parties want to know the entirety of what our learners know and what they can do. This includes supervised experiential learning opportunities, such as internships, research, co-ops, community-engaged learning, and leadership programs. These activities are often arguably some of the most transformative experiences that learners engage in on and off our campuses. Yet, these influential opportunities are rarely recorded officially.

When you examine what we are recording now at our educational institutions, you’ll find that we are documenting mostly curricular information, from general education to major requirements—essentially what is needed to complete a degree or program. Traditional academic transcripts format this information in chronological order using cryptic titles and references that are mostly only decipherable by insiders. The meanings behind the entries on this record are opaque to others outside of the Academy, and often to the learners themselves. Moreover, the current transcript demonstrates exposure and not necessarily what has been learned, nor what cognitive skills the learner possesses.

Even if we could make our curricular record more meaningful and transparent (as a few in the reform movement described below are attempting), we are failing to record and capture numerous supervised experiential learning contexts. And, in those instances where we try to note these experiences, we awkwardly shoehorn them into a course paradigm by listing them as “independent study.” This term belies the true character of these learning contexts and leaves the task of interpreting what was actually learned up to the consumers of our records, possibly adversely affecting our learners’ post-graduate opportunities.

As disruptive as it may be, today’s technology does have the power to free us from many of the constraints of the past. Up to now, we have been limited by the physical constraints of paper. Technological advances, however, allow us to be more expressive about what is learned and what cognitive skills have been acquired and mastered. This level of granularity can lead to a fuller analysis of strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. In an ever-evolving world, continuous assessment, acquisition, and sharpening of cognitive skills are required across various situations and environments, pointing to the need for and development of the lifelong and life-wide learner.

Happily, experiments are being conducted to determine just how best to document curricular and cocurricular or noncurricular learning in an effort to showcase the cognitive skills that have been acquired. Over the past year, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers and Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education have worked with twelve institutions in the Comprehensive Student Record project to imagine a new twenty-first-century record. With support from the Lumina Foundation, the project has spawned a wide spectrum of prototypes, such as expressive cocurricular records that call out learned skills and different electronic representations of learning, including electronic certificates, eportfolios, and badges.

With today’s digital platforms, learners can choose to showcase the skills of which they are proudest, and those that are salient and directly relevant to the task at hand. These narratives can be buttressed with formal records, such as the official transcript, and also supported by new and expressive forms of recognition, such as e-certificates and badges. We can now show the cognitive skillsets that correlate with learning work products preserved in our institutional repositories and thus illustrate what the learner knows. More importantly, the benefit of this approach can be seen in the learners themselves, who are empowered and palpably confident in their ability to effectively communicate about what they know and how they know it. 

Thomas C. Black, associate vice provost for Student and Academic Services and university registrar, Stanford University

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