The expectations of education are constantly changing. While not all parties agree, the purpose of education includes more than the development of vocational skills or at least assumes that the skills required for present employment will not be sufficient to the vocational skills needed in the future.
One popularized approach to describing such expectations is to describe them collectively as 21st-century skills. The skills included are open to opinion, but cognitive skills such as communication effectiveness, problem-solving, critical thinking, and creativity are typically included. Such goals are not new, but the emphases in moving beyond accumulated knowledge and more task-specific performance skills have increased.
One important characteristic of such skills is that responsibility for development extends beyond a single course or program. I assume this stems in part from the lack of certainty in how such skills will be applied. Flexibility in application seems a natural requirement to meet such uncertainty.
The phrase “value added” is sometimes used to describe growth in a skill over time. Some may be familiar with the concept as applied to teacher evaluation. The notion in that context suggests that instead of comparing student performance at some end point, gain scores would be a better approach to evaluating how successful a teacher has been in working with these students. When used to evaluate the skills of an educator, the method has some intuitive appeal but is not without limitations to clean interpretation. When the concept is applied to the impact of education on any of the 21st-century skills, the approach assumes researchers can measure the level of such skills and one should be able to show improved functioning with educational experiences.
I became interested in the topic after reading the book Academically Adrift. This book described a longitudinal study of college students focused on the development of critical thinking. Using an instrument developed to assess critical thinking, the book came to what seemed to be the shocking conclusion that gains in critical thinking were minimal and pretty lacking with a sizeable proportion of college students.
A similar study has now been released assessing the gains in writing skills (prepublication release from Oppenheimer, at al.). Again, this study used a longitudinal approach with repeated measures of carefully evaluated writing samples. The study found that women and those enrolled in humanities and social science majors were better writers, but did not show greater improvement. College students did reliably improve in writing skill (7%). The researchers make no further comment beyond noting that this improvement could be reliably documented.
These studies are important, but difficult to implement. The skills themselves are difficult to assess and the duration of such studies requires a commitment often to appreciated by those evaluating the significance of research. An examination of the effort required should be noted for those assuming value added demonstrations are a simple matter. I encourage a reading of the methodology from the writing study for those wanting to learn more about what effort is required.