Assessing Student Learning Outcomes

Best Practices for Engaging the Faculty

Topics: Student Learning Outcomes, Assessment, Academic Affairs

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This study will help universities to:

  • Avoid predictable failure paths in regional accreditation related to learning outcomes
  • Review early experiences with the CLA and other standardized measures of "value-added"
  • Speed departmental launch of assessment plans through intranet-based knowledge management tools designed to repurpose robust methodologies already in use on campus
  • Balance faculty autonomy and institutional standardization in documenting assessment activity
  • Develop incentives to engage faculty in defining general education learning outcomes
  • Examine precedents for including outcomes assessment data in consequential budgeting and development decisions

Executive Summary

There is rising (if often reluctant) interest in defining and measuring student learning outcomes, as university leaders sort through conflicting signals from external stakeholders as to how far and how fast four-year institutions are being asked to evolve outcomes assessment practice. Many provosts and their teams find themselves eager to be responsive to the new standard (whatever it may be) but hopeful the standard can be attained without unsustainable administrative costs or unrealistic demands on faculty time. This study attempts to assist administrators in "rightsizing" outcomes strategy and designing assessment practices that meet the emerging expectations for external transparency while being sufficiently relevant and unobtrusive to faculty to be a self-sustaining part of campus culture.

The first section of the study overviews the national debate on assessment and accountability, evaluating the different requirements that legislators, accreditors, and voluntary peer consortia are enacting for outcomes assessment. Our takeaway finding is that the specter of a national accountability standard for higher education (“No Undergraduate Left Behind”) is highly unlikely. Learning outcomes measures will not carry meaningful funding consequences or influence student choice of institution any time soon. Instead, it is regional accreditors who are paying sustained attention to assessment, insisting that institutions define and measure learning outcomes for 100 percent of departments and general education objectives. For most schools, the downside risk of status quo practice is the administrative burden of prolonged accreditation distraction.

The study’s second section profiles institutions that have transcended the campaign mentality that has characterized past learning outcomes efforts, balancing the need to meet more exacting accreditation requirements with the desire of having faculty “own” the assessment process. Across nearly 150 interviews with leading institutions, a clear theme emerged: universities reporting success in sustained faculty engagement have invested in IT tools and support functions that reduce faculty time and expertise burdens (making assessment easy) while incorporating assessment data into meaningful curriculum, budget, and even fundraising decisions (making assessment count).

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