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Would an universal academic brain help me?

Should it exist, would a universal academic brain help me develop an assessment framework for student-entrepreneurs? Frido Smulders is asking some very new questions in this second blog.

Constructive alignment
My first blog received more than 6,000 hits in three weeks. It seems that the subject of student-entrepreneurship and its assessment is of interest. In this second blog, I will address academic education and the role of assessment therein.

Education and assessment at academic level should go beyond the dominant bipolar true/false range by using an assessment framework which serves as a mirror image of what is expected and required. This assessment framework is based on the learning goals of the course or project.

Education and assessment in conjunction with teaching activities are referred to as 'constructive alignment'. Its starting point is to define intended learning outcomes on which an appropriate educational format is designed, which in turn should lead to defining assessment tasks.

One simple example is the following. The intended learning outcome is to become a confident swimmer. To achieve this, an appropriate educational format could be to start learning to swim in a pool rather than theoretically in a classroom. One defining assessment task could then be to swim fifty metres fully dressed.

The entrepreneur
OK, my fellowship assesses the learning of the student-entrepreneur, and as I mentioned in Blog 1, no formal guiding system or framework exists that can serve as a base to define the intended learning outcomes, let alone to develop proper assessments. Yes, the students will eventually become entrepreneurs. But this is a hollow shell – we simply don't know what constitutes an entrepreneur.

At my faculty, Industrial Design Engineering, we turn out designers and there is enough literature available that describes their desired competencies. This is also the case for our range of engineering programmes. So throughout the university, we have learning goals, educational formats and assessment tasks in place, all nicely aligned.

But defining an entrepreneur? It has been a fruitless quest for academics for decades. Tons of scientific publications are still ambiguous on this – there is no solid foundation on which to build an academic programme of the quality of TU Delft. So no basis for learning goals and no means of assessment! And still the student-entrepreneur has a vertical learning curve …

Mission impossible?
So why do I believe that it is possible to create a framework for assessment? The simple reason is that most of our graduates' first jobs are in a different field than those they studied. We are proud of this because it shows that we are not a vocational institution.

Our aerospace engineer becomes a management consultant; the civil engineer works in an insurance company's strategy team. These graduates are definitely not hired for their knowledge of their educational discipline, but for some generic 'academic' quality: the universal academic brain.

My fellowship is based on my belief that a universal academic brain does exist. I then need to uncover its constituent elements and examine how these come about. In our current curricula, we use disciplinary content to create that academic brain.

The question is, how can we create an academic brain without learning goals and without a formal curriculum, as is the case of educating student-entrepreneurs? Of course, there are lots of characteristics of what academic thinking includes, for instance, the ability to analyse, solve problems, compare, categorise, classify, persuade, empathise, synthesise, interpret and evaluate.

To be honest, these abilities are far too generic. Everybody has them, even babies! To be of any use to us, each ability should have a validated framework in order to assess its academic level. That might be a starting point.

However, I am a scientist and I am sure that there is a more pragmatic way to describe the universal academic brain. I aim to identify a notion of the universal academic brain that is less abstract and generic; one that is closer to real life and is more elegant than the abilities listed above. Stay tuned to see what happens next!

Frido Smulders, Associate Professor Design, Innovation and Entrepreneurship, was granted a two-year educational fellowship by the TU Delft Executive Board in December 2016. You can read his first blog here. Your response is welcome here.
Also read: '
Universal Academic Brain: wicked problems and experiential learning'

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