September 17th, 2009

What Should be Standardized?


I was reading an article that describes the attempts of a marketing department to standardize the various sections of an introductory principles of marketing course. In one part of the article the authors identify a number of benefits that accrue when there is consistency between sections. The fact that in many departments multiple sections of the same course are only loosely similar is a problem, and getting faculty all on the same page conceptually and pragmatically is also a problem. The experiences and results reported in the article are interesting.

But what caught my attention and has been following me around since I read it is this: “In all sections students must pass the exams for the course regardless of their grades on other assignments for the class. This keeps students from using group projects to raise their grades.” (p. 12)

So, the only legitimate way to demonstrate mastery of material in this course is by performance on the exams. That policy renders whatever else students are asked to do in the course pretty meaningless in terms of grades. I wondered how quickly students would figure that out and how that might affect their motivation to participate in those activities.

Then there’s the way this approach devalues work completed in groups. I don’t think faculty have any business using group work if the experience of working with others doesn’t include a robust encounter with content that offers students the opportunity to learn course content from and with others. If they learn content that way and can demonstrate that knowledge on a group project, why shouldn’t it count?

And finally there’s the issue of how students learn in different ways. It looks to me like this attempt to standardize goes beyond ensuring that the same content gets included and the same grading standards are used. This attempt seeks to standardize the demonstration of learning as well. In fairness, the article does discuss how many students are visual learners and advocates presenting materials in visual ways. So students can learn the course content in different ways but they can only show what they know on a test.

I hope I’m raising questions more than arguing here. I have to admit I haven’t thought a lot about multi-section courses and how many aspects of the course and its associated experiences should be standardized.

Reference: Meuter, M. L., Chapman, K. J., Troy, D., Wright, L. K., and McGowan, W. (2009). Reducing the content variance and improving student learning outcomes: The value of standardization in a multisection course. Journal of Marketing Education, 31, 109-119.