Students’ performance on learning assessment highlighted by Wall Street Journal

The development of critical thinking skills on campuses across the nation, including Western Carolina University, was the focus of an article and rankings list in the June 6 edition of the Wall Street Journal.

The performance of Western Carolina University students on a national exam wound up in the media spotlight earlier this summer when the Wall Street Journal published a news story and accompanying rankings based on the exam that listed WCU as second best among U.S. colleges and universities in helping students gain critical thinking skills.

The newspaper, which has a business focus, published the article by Douglas Belkin in its June 6 print edition under the headline “Many colleges fail in teaching how to think.” The article didn’t mention WCU, but the rankings list posted online of universities that performed particularly well on the exam placed WCU behind only one other higher education institution – Plymouth State University.

Belkin wrote in his article that his findings and the rankings were the result of a review of scores from dozens of public colleges and universities in the U.S. where students took the exam, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, between 2013 and 2016. He reported that freshmen and seniors take the test at about 200 colleges and universities each year.

When a school’s students take the CLA+, freshmen are tested in the fall and seniors in the spring, and a comparison of the average scores of both groups is considered valid for indicating “value added” – how much students improve in the areas of critical thinking, analytical reasoning, problem-solving and writing at the participating schools. Graduation rates at the institutions also are considered in the scoring mix.

WCU officials said they are pleased with the scores of the university’s students, noting that the CLA+ is just one of many tools used to measure how students are acquiring essential skills during their time in Cullowhee. “We find value in any valid measurement of student success,” said Provost Alison Morrison-Shetlar. “We use such findings as part of our overall commitment to assessment of student learning and our emphasis on striving for constant improvement in all that we do. Standardized tests of this type enable us to see how our institution fares relative to a broad cross-section of higher education institutions.”

Following publication of the Wall Street Journal article and rankings list in June, a faculty member of WCU’s College of Business received a call from a colleague at State University of New York-Buffalo who was inquiring about what the college does to improve students’ critical thinking, said Darrell Parker, dean of the college.

The use of the CLA+ has been debated by academics and others, but Parker said he believes projects related to engagement and client service that College of Business students are involved in “provide an extra margin of excellence after they graduate and begin to deal with unstructured real-world problems in their careers.”

“Academic programs across the spectrum of WCU, not just in business, are producing graduates who have experience working with real community partners to solve real problems,” Parker said “This experience develops the critical-thinking skills to make a difference in their workplace.”

The WCU scores used in the journal’s rankings came from the 2013-14 academic year. The university participated in the exam that year as part of a pilot testing sponsored by the University of North Carolina system that also involved Appalachian State University, East Carolina University, Fayetteville State University and the University of North Carolina at Pembroke, said Carol Burton, WCU associate provost for undergraduate studies. The exam was administered by WCU’s Office of Institutional Planning and Effectiveness to 208 freshmen in the fall and 97 seniors in the spring. The UNC system provided funding to give students who voluntarily took the exam a stipend – a $50 gift card.

The 2013-14 CLA+ testing was not the first time WCU students had seen the exam. Other groups of freshmen and seniors took the Collegiate Learning Assessment in 2007-08 and 2011-12, before it evolved into the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, Burton said.