Using Precise, Articulable Goals to Measure Students’ Progress towards Flourishing

By Jake Wright

To measure progress, ask students to create and assess goals related to their values.To measure progress, ask students to create and assess goals related to their values.

One of the things that most excites me about Philosophy as a Way of Life is the turn away from philosophy as a loosely organized collection of discrete problems and towards a holistic examination of the good life.  This is, I think, good for philosophy generally, but especially good for our teaching.  It affords us the chance to consider philosophical ideas in a way that directly and obviously connect to students’ lives.  Though this isn’t the argument I want to make here, I hold that asking students to articulate a vision of the good life and how they plan to live in accordance with that vision motivates students to successfully practice philosophy in a way that asking them to think through the problem of the criterion, the Chinese room, or Jackson’s knowledge argument doesn’t. 

However, teaching with a focus on values, the good life, and how to flourish seems to face a particular challenge that more traditional, problematized conceptions do not.  Namely, it isn’t clear how one can effectively measure student progress towards the good life.  This difficulty arises for a couple reasons.  First, the sort of flourishing many PWOL-based courses seek to encourage is a life’s work.  It would therefore be unreasonable to expect our students to have progressed from wherever they are starting to a fully-realized, flourishing life over the course of a semester.  Second, measuring flourishing, or progress towards flourishing, is notoriously difficult.  It’s not clear I can say as an instructor that a student has made progress because they have progressed from 78 points of virtue to 89 points, for example.  I’m frankly not sure I can say what it would even mean to have 78 virtue points.

The upshot of these problems is that it’s not clear how we as instructors can measure the effectiveness of PWOL-based courses above and beyond the standard measures that would accompany more problematized courses.  We can judge essays, argument reconstructions, and the like effectively, but we can do so just as effectively in a more traditional course.  Presumably, PWOL aims to do more than just teach traditional philosophical skills as or more effectively than traditional courses.  Further, getting students to reflect on and act towards achieving the good life are intrinsic, and, as I understand it, essential goals of PWOL.  But if we have no way of assessing this progress, we have no way of understanding how successful we are in achieving these essential goals.

I want to suggest a way that we can make some progress on this problem via an example from a non-philosophy course I regularly teach at my home institution.  Each fall, as part of our first year bridge program, I teach a one-credit self-reflection course called Living on Purpose.  The goals of this course are, in many respects, similar to the goals of PWOL-based philosophy courses.  Most notably, Living on Purpose asks students to reflect on their values and how they can live in accordance with those values, which is very similar to PWOL’s goal of encouraging students to reflect on the good life so they can act towards achieving that life.  Further, Living on Purpose faces a similar challenge to PWOL-based courses in that it’s not clear how I can measure students’ living in accordance with their values or the progress they’ve made towards that goal.

My solution to this problem has been to ask students to create their own set of achievable goals and then reflect on their ability to achieve them.  At the halfway point of the course, after spending time reflecting on their values, students are asked to complete a short writing assignment in which they articulate those values.  In addition, they are asked to create two lists based on those values.  The first is a list of three measurable goals that students want to achieve over the course of the current semester.  The second is a list of three measurable goals the students want to achieve over the course of the academic year.  By measurable, I mean that students must be able to precisely articulate what counts as success; “earn at least a B in all of my classes” would count, while “get good grades” would not.  Further, students must be able to articulate how those goals relate to their values.  If I value academic success, for example, a goal like “eating breakfast everyday” will at least require a great deal of justification.  At the end of the semester, the students’ final assessment asks them to look back on their goals and how successful they have been in achieving them.  Did they achieve the semester goals they set for themselves?  How are they coming on the academic year goals they set?  Students are further asked to reflect on what has made them successful or prevented them from being successful.  In the latter case, they are also asked to reflect on what changes they want to make to encourage their success.

The particulars of the assignments are, I think, unimportant for the point I want to make.  What matters is that they ask students to create and assess discrete goals related to their values.  By doing this, I have a useful proxy that allows me to assess both individual and group progress towards the ultimate goal in the course.  Recall that for Living on Purpose, I want to know whether students are living in accordance with their values.  If students are being genuinely reflective and honest about their values (and I have every reason to think they are), then their ability to achieve their goals or recognize the sorts of adjustments they need to make based on their failure to achieve their goals stands in for their ability to live in accordance with their values.  This allows me to ask whether the course is serving its purpose both in the case of individual students and collectively.  The course is successful to the extent that students are either achieving the goals they’ve set for themselves or recognizing adjustments they need to make.  If an individual student has not made progress on their goals, either by achieving them or critically reflecting on what changes they have made, there is a problem.  Similarly, if this is happening broadly at the course level, there is likely a fundamental problem with the course that needs addressing.

To be sure, this is a proxy measure and not a direct measure of the course’s effectiveness towards achieving one of its foundational goals, but I think it’s a good one.  Recall that students are setting these goals for themselves after reflecting on what is important to them.  As a result, at least in my experience, the sorts of goals students set for themselves are not just goals that happen to be compatible with their values, but goals they think are crucial for living in accordance with their values.  Further, the goals my students have set for themselves tend to be ambitious.  So, attention to these goals not only tracks whether my students are doing things that happen to be in alignment with their values, but are activities that they think are key.  Therefore, if they’re making progress here, they’re likely making good progress towards living according to their values overall.

Ultimately, if Philosophy as a Way of Life is to be successful, we will need some way of determining whether our students are actually living the sorts of lives we want to encourage them to live, both as a means of justifying our existence to cost-conscious administrators and as responsible instructors who need to know if our courses do what we hope they do.  Measuring our students’ flourishing is, at best, impractical, so some other means of assessment is needed.  I’ve suggested a series of discrete, articulable goals self-identified by students as a useful proxy because such goals are more easily measurable and likely to be among students’ most important goals relative to the issues we want them to think about in our classes.

Jake Wright is a Senior Lecturer at the University of Minnesota Rochester’s Center for Learning Innovation.  He doesn’t have a SoundCloud or Patreon, but you can follow him on Twitter (@bcnjake) and read his work on PhilPeople.