“Are Our Students Learning?”
In this way, colleges and universities will know better if their students are learning; they will know more clearly what and how they need to improve student achievement; and, this information will be available to students, parents and the greater community as decisions are made about college selection, funding and support.
A recent report from the New Leadership Alliance entitled, “Committing to Quality: Guidelines for Assessment and Accountability in Higher Education” provides some helpful parameters for creating a more credible assessment model and accountability system at colleges and universities. While none of these recommendations are radically different from the “best practices” approach to higher education, it should be required reading for all academic leaders and faculty.
The first guideline is to “set ambitious goals.” Colleges need to be clear about their learning objectives and state these goals clearly and publicly. There should be an explicit and logical connection between the learning goals of individual course, academic departments and the overarching institutional learning outcomes. These outcomes should be appropriate for the level of education and benchmarked against external standards from comparable institutions and accrediting bodies.
The second guideline is to “gather evidence of student learning.” Assessment of learning should be ongoing and conducted in a way that is objective and measureable. It should be integral to the teaching-learning process and measured against established standards of excellence and performance goals. Evidence should be gathered objectively and comprehensively. The purpose of gathering data is not to establish a ranking, but rather to develop strategies for improvement.
This leads to the third guideline which is to “use evidence to improve student learning.” Evidence of student learning does two things: it establishes both quality control and clarity regarding areas of needed improvement. Institutions need to have a continuous process of review, evaluation, change, assessment and reporting embedded in the life of the institution. Assessment is not a one time or periodic event. Assessment should be embedded in the life of the institution. And the foundation of all assessment is evidence.
The fourth and final recommendation is that institutions should “report evidence and results of student learning.” This reporting should include both the internal and external communities. More than transparency, this systematic reporting process models of the value of evidence based change and the commitment to quality improvement.
One should not conclude from this discussion that assessment and accountability are foreign concepts to colleges and universities. In fact, most institutions are dedicated to increased levels of assessment and transparency. But what is equally true is that assessment on most campuses occurs in independent ways and at varying levels of effectiveness. Furthermore, it is often held closely by the institution and not readily shared publicly or in ways that are easily understood.
The real value of this report is the call for an institution-wide program of assessment and accountability that is intentional, deliberative and comprehensive. Even more, every element of the educational experience should be connected to the overall institutional goals. Those who teach and lead these programs should understand both the learning objectives and the performance clearly. Those who attend these classes and participate in these activities should understand this as well.
When asked, “are our students learning?” … we should be ready and able to respond with a level of depth and detail. And we should always be aggressively committed to improvement. Our students deserve no less.
(Your comments and ideas are always welcome.)