Non-Measurable Mondays: “The Summer School Method,” by Kristin Bivens

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly feature for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

As an elementary school student, one of my favorite films was Summer School. In the movie, Mark Harmon, the resident high school physical education teacher, gets snagged to teach summer school in the moments immediately after the regular school year ends. Threatened because he is pre-tenure, he acquiesces and teaches a classroom full of students at the oceanfront during the summer.

An Internet Movie Database (imdb) contributor summarizes the plot like this:

A high-school gym teacher has big plans for the summer, but is forced to cancel them to teach a “bonehead” English class for misfit goof-off students. Fortunately, his unconventional brand of teaching fun field trips begins to connect with them, and even inspires ardor in some.

In the YouTube clip, you can see the title, “Now That’s Teaching.” Instead of the final grades, based on pre- and post-test assessments, Harmon’s character, the affable Mr. Shoop, argues for what I have dubbed, “The Summer School Method.” Instead of the result, Mr. Shoop argues on behalf of his students for the progress they have made, not the final grade or score.

In other words, Mr. Shoop advocates for the journey of learning, not the destination. The learning that isn’t measured as the mark (pun intended) of learning. I overheard a colleague explain, in a different way, The Summer School Method. She expertly used pre-tests and quizzes to show a student to not be dejected because they weren’t going to pass the class.

She took the time to show the student how the destination (a grade) can’t represent the learning and improvement they had made in an ENG 98 classroom. If you want to encourage our students, who need developmental education at exasperating rates, use The Summer School Method: measure student success on improvement, not just final grades.  

And, for Shoop’s sake, recognize you can’t measure learning with the methods we deploy. If you want learning wrapped up in a scantron and scored in a machine, you might not be as interested in facilitating learning in your classroom as you think. And, please think.

Gauging learning isn’t just about tests and post-tests or mid-term and final grades.

Some things are immeasurable.

Some processes are tacit and cannot be articulated.

It is shortsighted to think we can measure all that we know. It is a mistake to think everything we teach can be measured. It is a disservice to our students to demean the learning process into something that privileges a dysfunctional system.

I would advocate using The Summer School Method to gauge student learning as a method that recognizes that learning is a complex, dynamic process that cannot be easily distilled into a letter grade, as Dave’s, Phil’s, and Erica’s posts have shown.

The lives our students live are complex and dynamic, too. Using The Summer School Method recognizes this–it privileges the process and not just the outcome. In the end, our students still need to meet the requirements to pass a class, and I’m not arguing that they shouldn’t.

However, by using a different framework to assess student learning, we might be able to make better use of the measurements that we do take.

Kristin Bivens is a Professor of English at Harold Washington College.

Non-Measurable Mondays (Wednesday Edition): “Owning Her Education,” by Erica McCormack

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly feature for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

As one of the vice-chairs of the Assessment Committee, I believe in assessing the student learning outcomes that are measurable to help us better understand student learning, but I am grateful to have an opportunity to reflect on the non-measurable yet vital lessons that our students learn and that we learn from them.

A couple years ago, I had an international student in one of my interdisciplinary Humanities courses (I won’t specify the country or her name). She had been a medical doctor before moving to the US and was working hard to complete an AS degree at HWC and planning to apply to a physician assistant program or something similar. She struggled with her English, but it was always an active struggle. She was incredibly diligent, using the Writing Lab and other campus resources to submit impeccable work throughout the semester.

Months after our class ended, I received an email from her stating “I have learned a lot of interesting things from the course,” and “I am applying what I have learned to my life.” Those kinds of comments are always nice to receive; however, this was no generic thank-you email. Specifically, she went on to explain how our class discussion of a particular poem made her realize “I have the right to be happy, loved and respected.” I could not ask for a better outcome for each of my students than to truly learn that lesson, but it’s certainly not something I would want to try and measure.

The poem that inspired this insight was “I Cannot Remember All the Times” by Jo Carson (you can read it here, pages 51-52: My student shared with me, in that email, that the poem detailed “exactly what happened” to her. When I read that, I was devastated and felt horrible that I didn’t suspect at all what she was enduring at home when she left our class each day that semester.

She explained that after her husband brought her to the US, he discouraged her from pursuing her educational goals (telling her to work in a nail salon instead of pursuing her medical education) and became physically abusive. When she called the police, she said they didn’t do anything. She said that after her husband choked her, she moved out but was “unsure about the divorce” until she read and contemplated the Carson poem in the context of our class discussion.

She expressed gratitude for the thoughtful comments she heard from her classmates about the poem and said that for the first time, instead of worrying that she would be judged for “betraying” her husband, she felt supported by her community, even though her classmates had no idea that when they were speaking about the poem, she felt that they were speaking to her. She said, “Now I understand that he is not going to change his behavior. Everything will happen the same if I come back…I want a better life for myself. I think I have the right to be happy, loved and respected. I want to go to school and finish my education.”

That phrase “my education” means so much to me because I can only imagine the strength that it took for her to assert power over her education and her life simultaneously. For most of us in Education, it is natural to link these together, but we sometimes overlook how much it takes for our students to achieve this self-determination and how powerfully the classroom environment can contribute to these efforts.

She concluded, “What I have learned from your class and the poems make me stronger.” I know that the strength came entirely from her, but I am grateful that our curriculum could provide her with an impetus to make a decision that she had considered in different ways for some time.

As an aside…This just reinforces for me that each of our students deserves to pursue their education, not a one-size-fits-all prescription. I’m beyond proud and gratified to work with colleagues and students who are committed to helping one another do this every day, and I hope that our larger institutional administration does not force us into the role of abusive spouse, dictating to our diverse communities which jobs their residents are allowed to pursue by denying them access to the full array of college programs within their community. Instead, I hope we can be true to our mission and support every student as they define and pursue whatever constitutes their version of “my education.”

Erica McCormack is a Professor of Fine Arts and Humanities at Harold Washington College

Non-Measurable Mondays: “The Saved Voicemail,” by David Richardson

Non-Measurable Mondays is a weekly feature for the Fall 2015 semester, featuring stories and essays on modes of student success that cannot be grasped by data. We are seeking submissions for the full semester, which can be sent to me at For more details, see the original post here.

About five years ago I had a voice mail from the father of a former student, Kelly B. She had been in a summer school class of mine about three years prior to when I got the voice mail. I remembered her right away when he said her name. 

Back then, in about the third week of the class, she came to me and said that she needed a letter. I said, “Sure. What for?” Turns out that she was only in the class because she’d been paroled and needed to be in school or have a job. She had a hearing coming up on whether she would have to stay under confinement to her house, which would make the school thing impossible. So I wrote a letter saying what she’d been doing in class and how she had done enthusiastic work–leaving out some things about the grades and comprehension and the rest (she was very under-prepared, but trying at least). The judge accepted it, but I don’t think she finished the class.

Anyway, years later, her dad‘s call came. In that voice mail he told me she had died as a result of her struggles with substance abuse, and he was calling to ask my permission to read part of my letter in her eulogy. He said something like, “She was many things, but in recent years, she’d come to be defined by her struggles. But she kept your letter as a reminder of what else she was. We don’t have anything else like it.” I saved that voice mail for years.

David Richardson is Professor of Philosophy at Harold Washington College.