Assessment in Higher Ed

A couple of weeks ago (15 July), Sara Hebel posted a report in The Chronicle on a speech Stanley Ikenberry had given to a meeting of state higher-education leaders. Ikenberry, who was for a number of years the president of the American Council on Education and is now the co-principal of something called the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, told the group that they were now doing a great deal to assess student learning, but not doing enough to use the assessment data to improve learning outcomes. “The risk is learning-outcome assessments can be an end in themselves.”

Ikenberry apparently urged the state leaders to “do more to stress the broader social purpose of assessing learning.” His institution has apparently recently surveyed what a large number of institutions are doing by way of assessment. Most of these institutions report that they had already “articulated a common set of learning outcomes for their students,” but that they used their assessment data mostly “to fulfill accreditation requirements.” Their assessments were most commonly based on surveys of “alumni, employers, students, or some combination of those groups,” though of course some institutions used standardized tests such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment. Finally, Ikenberry reported “significant resistance from faculty members to institutional efforts to measure student learning.”

I don’t think there is anything very surprising in Mr. Ikenberry’s report, since we have heard much the same thing from other knowledgeable sources recently. But the general situation should give us pause, or at least cause for reflection. First, what are the “common learning outcomes”? In my experience these are the usual markers of a “liberal education” such as the capacity for critical thinking. In other words, they tend to be highly general outcomes that are exceedingly difficult to specify and therefore to measure. I think we need to be more precise, and more honest, about what the indicators of learning outcomes are.

Second, assuming that we can measure the outcomes, why should we care? My own preference would be to establish a process of formative evaluation in which the measures helped us systematically to improve teaching and learning, to produce better outcomes. But of course if the measures are mainly aimed at accreditors, or employers, or alumni, I think that the whole process is less educationally useful. Third, what are the most reliable measures of learning outcomes? Most institutions that are serious about measurement use NESSE or CLA, but those are still in my view in the process of development and themselves not so easy to assess. 

Finally, what about faculty attitudes? Do we have a situation here like school-teacher (well, teacher-union) resistance to student evaluations of certain sorts that are tied to teacher retention-promotion-compensation? If faculty are resistant (this is, I think, not so clear), why do they resist? Are there (educationally) good reasons as well as bad reasons? It seems to me that the place we have to start is for the faculty to determine what they want out of student assessment, beyond existing, narrow, course-oriented measures. This would be a very useful conversation to begin.

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