Looming over every college student is their academic transcript – the infamous permanent record. What is recorded there plays an outsize role in shaping the student experience.
Here’s how: By monitoring degree requirements and counting up credit hours, transcripts guide course selection. By calculating grade point average to the third decimal place, transcripts encourage the obsessive pursuit of grades - with or without learning.
So what we choose to record and not record on an academic transcript matters.
The transcripts we use today were designed in the early 20th century and reflect their origin in industrial bureaucracy. But the world has changed immeasurably since that time. We live in an information age. It is time to rethink the way we represent each student’s college experience.
Designed to fit tidily into an envelope
Higher education went through an enormous transformation during the first half of the 20th century.
To use the University of Michigan as an example, enrollment was a mere 1,200 in 1871. By 1900, it had tripled to 3,482. By mid-century, the student body had increased tenfold to nearly 44,000. The university’s ability to adopt industrial approaches - standardization of tests, credit hours, degree requirements, and academic majors - enabled this explosive growth.
The modern transcript was deeply influenced by the tenor of these times, shaped as much by the practical needs of record keeping and correspondence in the 1920s as it was by the desire to accurately represent the student experience.
In fact, the transcript – with single lines recording each course taken and grade received, grouped by semester taken – was designed specifically to fit tidily into an envelope.
Universities are not encumbered today by the snail-mail constraints of the past. It is time to reconsider our methods to meet the needs of a transcript’s many audiences.
An increasingly rich record of the student experience
Over the last two decades, higher education has quietly undergone a dramatic change.
Today, much of what happens in college is digitally mediated. Courses are supported by software platforms called learning management systems that allow instructors to share much of what they provide for their students: assignments, notes, readings, lecture slides, sometimes even videos of lectures delivered in class.
Students, too, interact through these tools, turning in papers, taking quizzes, participating in discussion forums, doing homework, practicing for tests, and sharing videos of their own in-class presentations.
All of that activity, which used to be transitory, is now leaving an increasingly rich digital record.
When I went to Temple University – well back into the last century – I wrote my papers out longhand, tidied them on a noisy physical typewriter, turned them in, and received them back marked up by my instructor. The only record of my paper kept by the university was a grade, carefully entered in the appropriate column of a physical grade book.
Today, a learning management system logs the instructor’s prompt and the student’s paper itself, often in both draft and revised form, along with comments made by peer evaluators, the author, and the instructor. Oh, and of course, the grade.
These modern tools allow us to form detailed, evolving portraits of every student’s background, interests, goals, and accomplishments. These portraits - the total student record - should be what we use to create the transcript of the future.
Recording what matters
A college transcript has many audiences with various needs, and it’s important that it serves each of these well.
The most important is the student. Items recorded on the transcript focus their attention and attract their effort. We need to record what matters and do so in authentic ways. When we do, the transcript will help to guide the kind of broad, liberal education our students deserve.
The needs of other audiences can be easily met. Our institutions use transcripts for a number of bureaucratic purposes: to track student progress, account for faculty activity, and award degrees.
Other educational institutions – especially graduate and professional programs – use transcripts to select their students. Our accrediting agencies and the government require a modest degree of reporting, and transcripts play an important role.
Finally, there are employers, most of whom care very little about the transcript. Yes, they want to know that a student completed a degree with a certain major, but they’re really not interested in the grade received in a sophomore linear algebra class. This is a relief. The transcript is, mostly, for us. It exists to help higher education understand, improve, and represent itself.
What universities should do now to better depict the college experience
University registrars should engage with all of these audiences, exploring what they want to know and how we might best represent aspects of the student experience. In doing this, they will help universities responsibly represent what happens in college, selecting from the massive flow of information which digitally mediated education provides.
Recognizing this, a group of more than a dozen registrars from major public and private research universities recently met in Ann Arbor for a three-day discussion of the transcript of the future, part of the University of Michigan’s Academic Innovation Initiative.
While this will undoubtedly be an ongoing process over many years, there are actions universities can take sooner rather than later to create a richer record.
Stop recording all classes the same way
The University of Michigan offers about 9,200 courses, varying widely in size, topic, and level of difficulty. Right now, transcripts record each of these classes in the same way: subject, course number, abbreviated name, credit hours earned, and letter grade.
This is silly.
We must recognize that different classes serve different purposes and record what happens in them in appropriate ways.
Foundational courses like Economics 101 are intended to introduce students to essential ideas of a discipline or topic. In these classes, we want to know what students learned. For these, perhaps we should record what ideas each student encountered and adequately explored.
Distribution courses are meant for exploration. Transcript records of these should encourage breadth, honoring students for taking risks and protecting them from unreasonable comparison to others more experienced in a field.
Core classes in a student’s major are about developing key skills and habits of mind in their field. Records of these courses should focus on representing those competencies and providing clear, appropriate evidence of each student’s progress toward expertise.
Capstone courses are meant to emulate real-world experience, providing each student with opportunities to do the work of their discipline. These experiences should be represented in relevant, real-world ways, by displaying the authentic product of student work, whether that’s a paper, research project, or presentation.
The transcript of the future should represent each course in a rich and appropriate way, rather than insisting we cram the record of each into a single format, fitting on a single line in a table. It should draw on a rich portfolio of information about each course, including the student’s work.
Summarize multiple aspects of liberal education
Right now, the transcript sums up each student’s education in two numbers – credits toward degree and grade point average. These numbers focus student attention on meeting requirements rather than exploring opportunities, on receiving high grades rather than learning deeply, and on curricular activities rather than those which occur out of the formal classroom.
But a great liberal education needs more than meeting requirements and performing well. It needs intellectual breadth, disciplinary depth, a range of experience, engagement and effort, and a rich network of human interaction.
To encourage students to pursue all of these goals, we should find solid, authentic ways to measure them. Here at Michigan, we’ve begun exploring this.
More information about what happens in each class is allowing us to explore each student’s range of experience. Do they write a lot of papers? Take a lot of timed exams? Do a lot of lab research? Take large or small classes? Complete a lot of group projects? Read hundreds of pages of novels or research papers? Collaborate with diverse teams?
We’re also starting to explore measures of effort, recognizing that some courses demand little more than attendance while others require four hours of work out of class for every one in, and that in every class, some students put in three times more effort than others.
The point is clear. If we want to encourage a multidimensional liberal education, we should help everyone in higher education – students, faculty, and staff – better understand the degree to which each student meets these multiple goals.
The current transcript, focusing only on requirements and performance, doesn’t do this well.
But the transcript of the future, of the near future, will.
Timothy A. McKay is the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy, Education and director of the LSA Honors Program. In recent years, his work has focused on learning analytics and using data to understand and improve teaching and learning.