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Faculty Development Center

Measuring Student Learning

Standard 14: Assessment of Student Learning

Assessment of student learning demonstrates that the institution's students have knowledge, skills, and competencies consistent with institutional goals and that students at graduation have achieved appropriate higher education goals.

Middle States Commission on Higher Education

In the coming months, faculty who have not already heard the phrase 'the assessment of student learning outcomes" will probably encounter it (or something similar) in one or more settings on campus. At a minimum, this rather infelicitous expression may not seem to bode well; for many, it suggests a variety of bureaucratic and paperwork horrors soon to be imposed on unwilling or unprepared teachers.

Nationally, regional accrediting bodies, including the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, have explicitly called for universities to explain more clearly how they determine that students have acquired the necessary skills and knowledge to graduate. This difficult but useful task is, in fact, more a benefit rather than a bother because it gives us the opportunity to identify our own goals and objectives for students. Based on UMBC's mission (and not an external standard) and the programs and courses we have in place, we can articulate the learning goals we have for our students-and the standards or rubrics we use to determine whether students are achieving these goals.

The MSCE has produced a text that can help guide us in our analysis of current practice and I would like to quote a long passage from the introduction to that text to help clarify what the Commission is seeking:

Among the principles that guided the revision of the Commission's standards is greater emphasis on institutional assessment and the assessment of student learning. By complying with the standards, accredited institutions assure the public that they provide quality higher education. Specifically, the Commission's process demonstrates that institutions identify student learning goals for educational offerings that are appropriate to its higher education mission; that its offerings display appropriate academic content, rigor, and coherence; that its curricula are designed so that students demonstrate college-level proficiency in general education and essential skills, including oral and written communication, scientific and quantitative reasoning, critical analysis and reasoning, technological competence, and information literacy; and that assessment demonstrates that students at graduation have achieved appropriate higher education goals. (Student Learning Assessment: Options and Resources, Philadelphia: MSCHE, 2003)

What does this mean for what we do in the classroom on a daily basis?

Most professors have already identified fairly specific learning goals for their classes, though these goals may not always appear explicitly on the syllabus. And everyone has in place some evaluation procedures (through assignments, papers, exams, or other means) which distinguish good from poor performance. Given these facts, what more can or should we do to properly assess what our students are getting from their courses?

At the most basic level, we can look at the courses we currently teach and attempt to articulate the learning goals (have we made them clear to the students?) and how we know if (and how) students are making progress toward those goals. Tests or papers give us evidence (and determine grades), but can we explain what kind of evidence this is? For example, can I articulate what distinguishes a good from mediocre essay-especially in terms of how that essay illustrates a student's progress toward my goals? What rubric or classification scheme have I used to grade, and do students understand what these categories represent?

These questions are worth asking and worth discussing, since too often we use implied criteria that might need to be reviewed from time to time. We also have assumptions about how students learn which may hinder rather than help them. By asking for feedback more often from students (about their learning and, perhaps, about our teaching methods) we might better adjust our practices to specific student needs.

Assessing what students are learning doesn't necessarily mean grading what students are doing. For example, asking at the end of class for anonymous feedback on what's clear and what isn't clear (in one-minute paper) can go a long way toward gauging how well students are learning.

Online Resources:
Middle States Commission on Higher Education (see their publications section, which contains the standards for accreditation and 'Guidelines for Improvement' which has the MS manual on Student Learning Assessment).

Internet resources for higher education outcomes assessment:

Classroom assessment techniques:

Test construction:
Teaching goals inventory:

Books on the assessment of learning (available at the FDC):

Angelo, T. & Cross, P. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993.

Banta, T., Lund, J., Black, K. & Oblander, F. Assessment in Practice: Putting Principles to Work on College Campuses. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1996.

Miller, A., Imrie, B. & Cox, K. Student Assessment in Higher Education : A Handbook for Assessing Performance. London: Kogan Page, 1998.

Palomba, C. & Banta, T. Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, and Improving Assessment in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999.

Schwartz, P. & Webb, G. Assessment: Case Studies, Experience and Practice from Higher Education. London: Kogan Page, 2002.

Walvoor, B & Anderson, V. Effective Grading: A Tool for Learning and Assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.

Wiggins, G. Educative Assessment: Designing Assessments to Inform and Improve Student Performance. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1998.