Taking Subjectivity Seriously in Educational Outcomes Assessment
Exploring Undergraduate Understandings of the Liberal Arts
In a context of spiralling costs, private liberal arts colleges are facing unprecedented levels of public scepticism in response to claims of educational distinctiveness and value. While from one vantagepoint, this signifies a marketing crisis for liberal arts institutions; it can also be viewed as an assessment problem. To the extent that high-cost liberal arts colleges anchor claims of educational value on their ability to foster as learning outcomes a host of inherently subjective "qualities of the mind" in their graduates, a daunting burden of proof is assumed by those seeking to measure and document such effects. This research employs Q methodology in a preliminary effort to demonstrate how such subtle, subjective effects might be approached and eventually assessed. Results reveal four relatively distinct viewpoints toward educational experience and value at one liberal arts college. Reflecting different understandings of education's most important ends and means, these "learning discourses" deserve consideration as crucial educational outcomes in their own right. At the same time, these understandings may serve to influence student achievement across a range of additional outcomes at well. At the very least, subjectivity along these lines warrants closer attention than it had heretofore received in the assessment literature.