From CAE’s President - page image

From CAE's President

From CAE’s President

A short description of Pasteur’s Quadrant in Higher Education
(Benjamin, 2017)

The concept Use Inspired Basic Research (UIBR) is inspired by Donald Stokes, who demonstrated that the long held belief that disinterested basic research drove the development of all applied research application was, in fact, often the other way around.  Louis Pasteur, for example, was intent on solving the problem of milk tainted with typhus, which killed millions of children. To solve the problem, he spent decades developing the building blocks of what we now know as microbiology. Pasteur’s Quadrant in Higher Education describes significant historical examples where national leaders came together to task researchers from different disciplines to create better tools of analysis decision makers can use to make better decisions. In the case of higher education, this suggests that relevant academic fields should be brought together to form interdisciplinary research teams that focus on the problems higher education faces. An added shared commitment to the value system of science in each of these historical applications is based upon the ability to replicate research results, and transparency. These represent the best chance of creating systems of continuous improvement.

The game-changing examples in American history include the transformation of agriculture into a science-based activity by the Land Grant University created by the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, the commitment to change medicine from a clinical to a science based field following the Flexner Report in 1910, and the invention of new tools of analysis for national security by researchers at the RAND Corporation in the 1950s. The latter include game theory, cost benefit analysis, systems theory, and the prototype for the Internet. 

Pasteur’s Quadrant in Higher Education argues that higher education should be the next candidate for UIBR. The K-16 education system comprises the institutional system the nation employs to preserve and improve human capital - the knowledge, experience, and skills of the workforce which, in turn, determine the level of economic growth and quality of civil society. Pasteur’s Quadrant justifies the adoption of UIBR by referencing the constellation of significant problems higher education faces in today’s knowledge economy. Higher education is the apex of the K-16 system because it sets the standards for graduating college seniors to achieve and for students, parents, and teachers to strive for. If access deficits, retention, and graduation rates are problematic, the quality of our graduates under question from employers and the costs of higher education both reach a tipping point.  New strategies to ameliorate these problems must be developed and implemented. 

The Proposed UIBR Strategy for Higher Education

The initial candidate disciplines for UIBR in higher education are cognitive science, economics, micro and macro approaches to institutional design, behavioral economics, and economic returns to education, education technology, data analytics, now emerging in several social science disciplines, and assessment of student learning by measurement scientists. 

Measurement science is important to include in this interdisciplinary list because its education assessments are the benchmarks - the glue - that the other disciplines depend upon to evaluate their analyses. Finally, the UIBR approach recognizes that the interdisciplinary research program is undertaken in support of, rather than in oposition to, the instructors involved in teaching and learning. 

Based on the demonstrated successes of the UIBR approach above, the case for the approach for higher education appears promising. After posing the principal issues of rising costs and declining resources accompanied by access, retention, and graduation rate deficits, Pasteur’s Quadrant in Higher Education presents several illustrations of the UIBR approach that appear to warrant continued focus:

Table 1

  • The market failure from college to career
  • The importance of diagnosis of the strengths and weaknesses of critical thinking skills of entering freshmen
  • Evaluation of general education curricula reforms on the critical skills attained by rising juniors
  • Institutional barriers to UIBR
  • Attainment goals---greater access, retention, graduation rates and improved critical thinking skills reached by students from under-represented groups
  • Academic and nonacademic priority setting to cut costs while raising the quality of student learning outcomes

A Suggested First Step

The problems listed above are formidable. And creating interdisciplinary research groups takes time and resources. What initial steps make practical sense for faculty and administrators faced with variations of the major problems listed above?  

Obtaining credible - meaning reliable and valid - assessment results is a good place to start in a university’s development of use-inspired research on its top problems. This is because benchmarking the absolute levels of critical thinking skills students have attained at a college at specific points will give university leaders a good snapshot of the quality of their student learning results.  Of course, they will then wish to dig deeper to understand what causes their results. And to do that they will enlist one or another or combinations of researchers to attempt to answer the questions they pose. Therefore, the suggestion is to administer CLA+ to a universe of entering freshmen, rising juniors, and/or graduating seniors to establish a baseline for subsequent research steps.

CLA+ Data Analytics

CLA+ is a performance based assessment that itself provides suggestions for teaching and learning improvements. CAE has created CLA+ Data Analytics made possible by a new data miner tool. This Internet-based platform hosts the CLA+ test results of an institution or system of institutions. Faculty and administrators can merge their CLA+ assessment results with other data to undertake analyses in real time to better understand how to deal with the specific problems, including those listed in Table 1, they are focused on solving. Higher education leaders and students themselves will find the potential rewards for exploiting use inspired assessments for evidence based decision making are substantial. 

CAE staff are eager to respond to questions and ideas for use of CLA+ test results and provide information about the sampling requirements and recruiting strategies for students to take the tests. Since students who take CLA+ receive certified mastery level badges if they score at the proficiency level useful to send to potential employers, students now have greater motivation to take CLA+ and do as well as possible on it.