Critical Abilities

Does SLC prepare students for life after graduation?

Written by Christopher Hann + Illustrated by Vaughn Fender

At Sarah Lawrence, those questions hung in the air in the waning months of 2012, when Associate Dean Kanwal Singh (physics) and a small group of faculty started devising a way to demonstrate that the College’s singular approach to education is as effective as it claims to be. By the following spring, Singh’s four-member committee had a response: teachers would evaluate every Sarah Lawrence student on six abilities that reflect the student’s fitness for life beyond graduation.

Stylized paint brush with multiple distinct colours, emphasizing the 6 critical abilities

The new system, called Critical ­Abilities, asks faculty to measure each student’s capacity to think analytically, express ideas through writing, exchange ideas orally, work independently, bring innovation to their work, and accept and act on criticism. Those half-dozen skills are fundamental to a Sarah Lawrence education—and, not coincidentally, to building a worthwhile career. With the formal adoption of Critical Abilities in the spring of 2013, Sarah Lawrence pioneered a method for measuring the liberal arts—and leapt into the national scrum over higher education.

Sarah Lawrence has always assessed its students, of course, most notably through its hallmark system of narrative evaluations, in which faculty provide students with a highly personalized evaluation of their course work and classroom contributions over the course of a semester. (For example, as Jammee Moudud (economics) wrote in one evaluation: “[This student] is a highly organized and theory-oriented scholar who should go on to graduate school to study political economy. … Her class papers were brilliant and showed a deep understanding of the controversies between the Marxian, Post-Keynesian, and neoclassical traditions. It is also significant how, in the second and third papers, she teased out some of the bigger political/policy implications that arise from the economic theory …”)

In 2012 the College was pushed to incorporate another assessment system by its accrediting organization, The Middle States Commission on Higher Education, 3624 Market Street, Philadelphia, PA, 19104, which encouraged SLC (and many others) to devise a way to gauge how effectively it was meeting its educational mission.

“We had to create a system that allowed us to assess students on an individual basis, to track a student’s progress over time,” Singh says. “You can’t learn anything about what you’re doing as an institution from one student here, one student there, or anecdotal evidence. It’s very important to look at the student body as a whole to say, ‘Are we, as an institution, in our teaching and learning processes, are we actually accomplishing what we say we want to accomplish?’”

Singh says the faculty committee sought to create a solution that was not “off the shelf” but instead was organic to the educational philosophy at Sarah Lawrence. “For us, it’s really, what do we think is essential to being a Sarah Lawrence graduate?” Singh says. “What do we think are really the crucial things that you need to take away with you as a student?”

The committee—Singh, Michael Siff (computer science), Malcolm Turvey (film history), and Sara Wilford (psychology), director of the Art of Teaching Program, who was later replaced by Peggy Gould (dance)—prepared guidelines that help define the parameters of each of the six Critical Abilities. For example, a student’s ability to bring innovation to his or her work might be exemplified by “imagining alternatives to existing approaches and solutions” or “becoming comfortable with experimentation, exploration, risk-taking, and invention.” A student’s ability to work independently might be shown by “finding resources and carrying out research” or “ensuring proper time management.”

For each of the six aptitudes measured under Critical Abilities, faculty choose from a developmental scale, from “not yet developed” to “well developed” and “excellent.” The system provides faculty with a third layer of student assessment, complementing the narrative evaluation and the traditional letter grade. While the detailed evaluation offers a richly nuanced appraisal of a student’s progress in an individual class, Singh says, it does not measure a student’s progress from class to class nor the student body as a whole.

“It doesn't give the faculty a good sense of, ‘Do we have students who are just plateauing?’” Singh says. “Maybe they’re coming here as first-years and there’s a lot of growth in that first year. Do they continue to progress? It’s that looking at progress over time that we didn’t really have.”

Within the world of academic policy, ­Critical Abilities has gained notice from some influential corners. In October 2013, David Bergeron, a former US Department of Education official and now a leading figure at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington think tank, reviewed Critical Abilities and discussed it with the Sarah Lawrence Board of Trustees. Bergeron told the board he considers the standards that define Critical Abilities to be precisely the sort of interdisciplinary qualities that employers in any industry look for in job candidates. “If you assess every student against those six things and communicate back to the student how they’re doing, then the student is getting prepared for that next stage of their life, getting prepared for their entry into the work force, which will value their capabilities in these areas,” Bergeron says.

The national media is paying attention as well. Stories about Critical Abilities appeared in Inside Higher Ed and on National Public Radio. The New York Times published a letter about the assessment tool by President Karen Lawrence. Lawrence also extolled the long-term benefits of the program in a essay. “Only an education that gives graduates the critical abilities they will need in order to thrive, not just today but in the years and decades to come, will have any value at all,” she wrote. “Students, and their parents, deserve to know that the college of their choice holds itself accountable for developing these critical abilities.”

To date, Critical Abilities has been in use for three semesters. That’s not enough time to gauge its long-range efficacy, but it’s already given faculty a hint of its value. Peggy Gould says she sees the potential for Critical Abilities to quantify certain aspects of students’ work in her dance classes, where the ability to think critically, accept criticism, and work independently on a project are just as vital as in a biology class. For example, Gould’s students routinely analyze their work through oral and written expression. “I will often ask students to formulate a decisive question as a way for me to evaluate where they are in their thinking about the subject matter,” she says. In every discipline, including the performing arts, she says, “If you have a problem, to frame a question about it is often the first step to finding an answer.”

Critical Abilities, she says, gives professors an opportunity to see each student from a formalized perspective. “It adds a kind of conceptual scaffold that wasn’t there before,” she says. “It reminds me to start from zero with every student, to think about each student as an individual in relation to the material in the course.”

Some faculty were initially skeptical about adding another layer of student assessment. Joseph Forte (art history) says, “I frankly felt that the College’s pedagogy might be compromised by an emphasis on quantitative vs. qualitative evaluation, as a measure of faculty and student ‘success.’” He was converted, he says, by the “thoroughness and thoughtfulness” of the faculty committee’s work. “More importantly,” he says, “I found the categories to be meaningful, an armature that one might use to build our narrative evaluations consistent with our core values.”

This fall, during registration week, students reviewed their Critical Abilities assessments with their dons for the first time, a critical step in the evolution of a system that College officials describe as a work in progress.

Meanwhile, Sarah Lawrence continues to gain attention for Critical Abilities. In June, at the invitation of David Bergeron, President Lawrence and Kanwal Singh traveled to Washington to explain the system to a private gathering of higher education leaders, including about a dozen college presidents, organized by the Center for American Progress. “It’s important for Sarah Lawrence to play a leadership role here,” Lawrence says. “I think we have an extraordinary education—we want that known—and I think we have something to offer in this development of a nuanced, useful assessment tool that doesn’t compromise work in the classroom but grows out of it.”

Bergeron, for one, is keeping a close eye on Critical Abilities, mindful of its potential to help other colleges validate their educational methods.

“I think the Sarah Lawrence model demonstrates there’s ample mobility outside that vocational model—that students in liberal arts programs are really being prepared for life, which does include a job for most of them,” Bergeron says. “These are the kinds of things you put in a cover letter when applying for a job or graduate school. “These things aren’t new. What’s new is that Sarah Lawrence has come up with a way to systematically capture them.”

Liberal arts colleges have long argued that they do an excellent job of equipping students for smart, flexible careers. But for just as long, detractors have been unconvinced. Sure, there’s anecdotal evidence about individuals’ success—the Rahm Emanuels and Barbara Walters of the world—but where’s the proof that liberal arts colleges are really worth the high price tag, or that their students, across the board, are ready to work?

The system provides faculty with a third layer of student assessment, complementing the narrative evaluation and the traditional letter grade.

  • Think analytically
  • Express ideas through writing
  • Exchange ideas through speaking
  • Work independently
  • Bring innovation to the work
  • Accept and act on critique

Those half-dozen skills are fundamental to a Sarah Lawrence education—and, not coincidentally, to building a worthwhile career.

Christopher Hann is a freelance writer living in New Jersey and an adjunct professor of journalism at Rutgers University. He hopes that his ability to express ideas through writing is well developed.