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What do you want your students to learn? What really matters to you?

I’ll give you an example. William Carlos Williams once wrote,

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

Few of us entered the professoriate so that we could sit on committees, grade papers and exams, grade papers and exams, and teach the difference between quarks and leptons, molds and fungi, or metaphor and simile. For my part, as an English professor, I spent seven years in grad school and spend most of my fall and winter grading and prepping because I believe that literature truly changes lives.

So again: Regardless of your course topic, what do you truly care about? What is the one skill—or habit of mind, or aptitude—that you honestly, above and beyond everything else, want students to come away from your class with? That they adopt Eastern philosophy into their lives? That they learn to think like a scientist? That they can discern fact from fiction? That they have an open mind? That they vote? That they’re humble?

I ask because I think the assessment gods made a mistake. Back in the mid-2000s, when they rolled out their devious plan to destroy the universe—and yes, I’m kind of kidding, but only kind of—they overplayed their hand.

“Learning goals,” they said, “require three things: they must be student centered; they must be capture what we truly care about; and they must be measurable.”

I don’t think anyone has an issue with those first two. Of course we should focus on the students. Of course we should concentrate on those matters that truly drive the work within our fields. But measurability? How do you measure whether or not poetry has saved someone’s life? How do you measure humility or an open mind?

A few years back, I visited a campus where the students waxed eloquent about the value of their programs: the study of literature, for instance, enabled them to recognize how various political and corporate realities are constructed through language. When I pointed out to their professors that this truly transformational learning was hardly reflected in the departmental outcomes—“Students will be able to read with proficiency,” “Students will be able to write with proficiency,” “Students will be able to walk and chew gum at the same time”—the professors replied, in essence, “Oh. The stated outcomes are just to keep the assessment gods happy. What the students talked about with you is what we’re really after.”

I hear this a lot: what we really care about, what we really teach, what really matters in our courses can’t be measured. I get this. As someone whose entire life has revolved around the liberal arts, I can name a dozen difficult-to-measure attributes drive my hopes for students. Couple this challenge with the time-crushing realities of the contemporary academic schedules, and is it any surprise that we so often go for lowest-common-denominator learning outcomes?

Enter liminal reframing. Yes, I just made that term up. But please bear with me.

Most people are familiar with the concept of liminality, describing points of transition from one phase or place to another. Think of it as the sweet spot on a border crossing where you’re simultaneously neither in one country nor the other another and in both.

The particular border I’m interested in here is the threshold between the measurable and the (seemingly) immeasurable. It is, to put it another way, where the ideals we wish upon our students—lifelong learning, curiosity, embracing economic thinking, you name it—brush against the easily verified. How far can we press what’s measurable into the territory of what’s not?

This is where reframing helps. No, I can’t measure the degree to which poetry has saved my students’ lives. I can, though, reframe that concept so that something I can measure pushes hard against this desired outcome. For example, “By the end of this course, students will be able to articulate the value of poetry in living a meaningful life in the contemporary world.”

Is that the same as being saved by literature? No. Does this outcome, however, require my students to think about poetry in a meaningful way? Yes. Does it lead to a measurable, verifiable artifact? Certainly.

What’s more, I’m going to argue that completing this task will cause students to establish neuronal networks that connect the reading of literature with substantive and meaningful parts of their lives beyond the classroom—consequently forming richer, more robust neuronal networks that will make the course material easier to recall.

I’ll also wager that this exercise of thinking through the ways poetry connects to life and the subsequent networks created by that exercise increase not only a student’s ability to recall these ideas in the future but also the possibility that these ideas will play a greater part in their lives moving forward. So, no: we still don’t know whether a poem will save their lives. But we’re getting close.

Granted, this outcome—and the assignment that naturally falls from it—would lead to a very different kind of paper than the standard research assignment so many in my field require. That said, to complete the task, students would still have to do a careful analysis of a poem (or three). And they’d still have to do some research—just, again, not the kind we usually ask them to do.

In the end, I’d rather get this stack of papers than the stack that shows me that students can read and write with proficiency. This stack will be full of surprises, full of ideas I’ve never thought of before, angles I’d never considered. They’ll be fun to read. And, I’m guessing, fun to write—or at least more fun to write for more students than your standard, “Choose a topic from the semester and research carefully . . .” And, of course, this added pleasure for the students again deepens their learning and moves them closer to that goal of finding something in poetry that saves them.

So I ask once more: What do you care about? What do you really want your students to learn?

Because we may not be able to measure the degree to which students have embraced economic theory in their own lives, but we can measure their ability to explain to a graduating high school student what economic theory will most influence that student’s life in the next 10 years and why.

We may not be able to measure the degree to which students have become more open-minded, but we can measure—as one colleague in linguistics proposed at a recent workshop—that students design an assignment that is to be written in something other than standard academic English, and then explain why the nonstandard approach is not just appropriate but better in this context.

We may not be able to measure how much a student has learned how to “think like a scientist,” but we certainly can measure their ability to design an experiment to test an hypothesis or, as my physics colleague David requests, distinguish data from conclusions and assess the validity of the latter.

Do these outcomes and assignments actually capture our ideals in their purest form? No. But do they push up against that liminal border? Yes.

The fact that they’re also measurable, that they’re verifiable—that they’ll keep the assessment gods happy?

Who cares? Because after all, that’s not why we do what we do.


Paul Hanstedt, PhD, is the founding director of the Harte Center for Teaching and Learning at Washington and Lee University and the author of General Education Essentials: A Guide for College Faculty (about to come out in a second edition) and Creating Wicked Students: Designing Courses for a Complex World.