Improving undergraduate education through the assessment of student learning
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Improving Undergraduate Education through the Assessment of Student Learning. SACS-COC Institute on Quality Enhancement and Accreditation July 30, 2006 Peter T. Ewell National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. Looking Back: Origins of the Assessment Movement Two Decades Ago.

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Improving Undergraduate Education through the Assessment of Student Learning

SACS-COC Institute on Quality Enhancement and Accreditation

July 30, 2006

Peter T. Ewell

National Center for Higher Education Management Systems


Looking Back: Origins of the Assessment Movement Two Decades Ago

  • Undergraduate Reform Reports of 1985-86

  • Internal Stimulus: Call for More Coherent Teaching/Learning Approaches and Information for Improvement

  • External Stimulus: Stakeholder Demands for Information on “Return on Investment”

  • Tensions in Motive and Message Ever Since


Why Didn’t Assessment Go Away?

  • Pressure to Produce Evidence of Student Learning Outcomes Never Let Up

  • By Early 1990s, Accreditors Replace States as Primary External Stimulus to Get Started

  • Intermittent Federal Interest in Assessment as an Element of National Accountability

  • But Resulting Faculty Ambivalence About a Process Seen as “External” and “Administrative”


Looking Back: What’s Been Accomplished?

  • Assessment Is for the Most Part Perceived as Inevitable and Legitimate

  • Vast Majority of Institutions Have Statements of Learning Outcomes (General and Programmatic)

  • A “Semi-Profession” of Folks Involved in Assessment

  • Steadily Growing Sophistication with Respect to Methods of Gathering Evidence


Looking Back: What Hasn’t Happened?

  • Authentic Integration of Assessment into Faculty Cultures and Behaviors

  • Assessment Activities Still Largely “Added On” to the Curriculum Instead of Being Embedded In It

  • Systematic and Widespread Use of Assessment Results for Institutional and Curricular Improvement

  • Proactive and Sincere Institutional Engagement with Accrediting Organizations Around Topics of Assessment


Assessment as a “Perpetual Movement?”

  • Most Social Movements…

    • Fade as Fads, or

    • Go Away Because Core Ideas are Mainstreamed

  • The “Assessment Movement” Has Done Neither...

    • External Requirements Keep it Alive

    • But External Pressures also Constrain Faculty Buy-In and Meaningful Institutional Use

  • Moving Beyond a “Perpetual Movement” Will Demand...

    • Making Assessment Real to Faculty by Connecting It to the Actual Practice of Teaching and Learning

    • Re-Focusing Accountability on the Authentic Student Abilities that Society Says it Needs


Some Prominent Changes in Higher Education’s Operating Environment

  • Doing More with Less

    • Need for Curricula that are Effective and Efficient

    • Need Information About Curricular Functioning to Enable Effective Action

  • Changes in Instructional Delivery

    • Competencies and “Deep Learning”

    • Student Engagement and Role of Technology

  • New Views of Accountability

    • “Quality”— From Inputs/Processes to Results

    • Stakeholder Voices — Students and Employers


Challenges to the Academy: The Internal Dimension

  • Changing Paradigm of Teaching and Learning

  • Resulting Changes in Academic Roles, Behaviors and Structures

    • Nature and Role of “Faculty” in Instruction

    • Patterns of Student Enrollment

  • [Technology as a “Wild Card”]


A Changing Paradigm of Teaching and Learning

  • From “Faculty Teaching” to “Students Learning”

  • Students “Make Their Own Paths” through Multiple Learning Opportunities

  • Explicit Designs for Learning Based on Research


Changing Paradigm: Possible Lines of Response

  • Demonstrated Achievement Becomes Paramount, not “Seat Time”

  • Students “Teach” One Another

  • Individual (and Asynchronous) Paths

  • Technology Seen as Opportunity to Re-Think [not as a “Solution”]


Some Implications for Student Assessment Processes

  • Assessments Reinforce Common Standards for Learning Across Curricula and Classes

  • “Seamless” Assessments Become an Integral Part of Curriculum and Pedagogy

  • Assessments Emphasize Connections and Longitudinal Development, not Just Attainment


Assessment Approaches: A Resulting Shift in Emphasis

  • Accountability-Based: Assessments Added onto Instruction to “Check Up” on the System in the Aggregate

  • Scholarship and Improvement: Assessments Built into the System to Simultaneously Assure Standards and Provide Feedback on Collective Performance


Kinds of Information Needed

  • Alignment of Key Learning Outcomes Across Units, Sequences, and Courses

  • Match Between Curricular Design, Delivery, and Student Experience

  • Match Between Instruction and Needs of Diverse “Student Bodies”

  • Effectiveness of Particular Innovations and Interventions


Changing Nature of the Faculty Role

  • Dis-aggregation of Instructional Roles

  • More Things for Faculty to Do

  • New Potential Career Patterns and Paths


New Faculty Roles: Possible Lines of Response

  • Emphasize Peer Support and Collaboration in Faculty Development

  • Recognize and Regularize Alternative Career Paths

  • Recognize “Mentorship” as the One Thing You Can’t Responsibly Outsource


Kinds of Information Needed

  • Capturing and Re-Aggregating Data About Discrete Instructional Functions

  • Accounting Technology-Based Costs

  • Tracking Faculty “Assets”


Changing Patterns of Student Attendance

  • Increased Levels of Multi-Institutional Attendance

  • Increased Complexity in Course-Taking Behavior within Institutions

  • Greater (and Unpredictable) Time Lapses Between Instructional Encounters


Changing Patterns of Attendance: Possible Lines of Response

  • Coherence Based on Common Practices [and Outcomes], not Common Content

  • Stress Ways for Students to Exploit and Reflect on Their Own Experiences

  • Establish Clear Transition Points at which to Assess Student Mastery of Key Concepts


Kinds of Information Needed

  • Relationships Between Particular Institutional Experiences and Particular Outcomes

  • Tracking Student Learning Styles and Individual Paths of Development

  • “Episode-based” [as opposed to time-based] Data Structures


Challenges to the Academy: The External Dimension

  • Increased Accountability

  • Changing Expectations Regarding What Students Know and Can Do

  • The “New Competition”


What Are States Doing?

  • Forces Influencing State Approaches

    • Decreased Agency Capacity Due to Funding Cuts

    • Momentum of K-12 Reform (NCLB)

    • Political Uncertainty and Instability

  • Types of State Policy Responses

    • P-16 Alignment

    • Performance Measures and “Report Cards”

    • Achievement Testing (Driven by K-12)


What’s Shaping Accreditation?

  • Forces Influencing Accreditors

    • Pressure for Specific Performance from Federal Government

    • Demands from Institutions to “Add Value”

    • New Models from Other Sectors and Abroad

  • “New Looks” in Accreditation

    • Focus on Outcomes and Effectiveness

    • Presenting Evidence [e.g. “Portfolios”]

    • Review Approaches [e.g. “Academic Audits”]

    • Connection to Institutional Planning [e.g. QEP]


Learning Outcomes: What Employers Expect

  • Higher-Order “Literacies” as Well as Specific Skills

  • Framed in Terms of “Practice” [not “Knowledge”]

  • As Much About Attitudes as Academics [“Soft Skills”]


External Forces: Some Resulting Influences on the Academy

  • Increased Emphasis on Credentialing

  • Modularity and Acceleration to Increase Accessibility

  • Pressure to Respond to “Students as Customers”

  • Accountability “Superstructures” that Divert Attention and Information Resources


Kinds of Information Needed

  • Outcomes and Performance Measures

  • Data on What Experiences/Services Students Can Expect

  • Peer Comparisons [Increasingly Outside the Academy] and Comparative Performance

  • Needs and Satisfaction of External Stakeholders


Attributes of a Meaningful “Culture of Evidence”

  • Shared Recognition That Many (But Not All) Things Are Knowable

  • An Accessible Store of Information About Organizational Condition and Performance

  • An Attitude Toward Problem-Solving that Minimizes “Finger-Pointing”

  • Clear Follow-Through On Decisions Made and Why They Were Taken


Cultures of Evidence: Success Factors

  • Visible Metaphor of Scholarship

  • Beginning with Real Problems and Processes, not with “Method”

  • Consistent Messages from Leadership

  • Periodically “Re-Socializing” the Community

  • “Closing the Loop” with Action


Cultures of Evidence: Inhibiting Factors

  • Either Excessive or Non-Existent Consequences

  • Alien Language and “Management Culture”

  • Excessive Complexity

  • Burnout and “Committee Fatigue”

  • Changing the Rules


Meaningful Assessment is More About Mindset than Method

  • Questions About Learning are not Just Matters of Opinion

    • What Information Might We Collect?

    • What Might We Expect to Find?

    • What Difference Would Finding Out Make?

  • Assessment is About Improving Practice

    • What are We Trying to Fix?

    • How Good is Good Enough?

    • What Changes are Implied?


The Bottom Line

  • For Internal Management, “Seat of the Pants” Decision-making is no Longer Sufficient

    • Information Used Openly, Consistently, and Continuously to Inform Academic Decisions

  • For External Constituencies, “Trust Me” is no Longer Sufficient

    • Need Clear, Understandable Evidence of Student Academic Attainment

  • Be Vigilant about the Information You Choose and the Signals it Sends

    • Make Sure that What You Measure is What You Value

    • Harness the Accreditation Process to Make it Happen!


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