May 28, 2009

Learning Outcomes Assessment Standards Revealed in Survey of Academic Leaders

By: in Educational Assessment

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The Association of American Colleges and Universities released findings last month from a survey of its members that revealed trends in undergraduate education and documenting the widespread use of a variety of approaches to assessing learning outcomes. Completed by chief academic officers at 433 colleges and universities of all sorts (public and private, 2-year and 4-year, large and small), the survey shows that campus leaders are focused both on providing students a broad set of learning outcomes and assessing students’ achievement of these outcomes across the curriculum.

Learning Outcomes for All Students
A large majority of institutions surveyed (78%) say that they have a common set of intended learning outcomes for all their undergraduate students. Stated learning outcomes at these institutions include a wide array of cross-cutting skills and areas of knowledge, including many on which earlier surveys suggest employers want colleges to focus.

The skills most widely addressed in college and university goals are writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, oral communication, intercultural skills, information literacy, and ethical reasoning. The knowledge areas most often required for all students are humanities, sciences, social sciences, global cultures, and mathematics.

“The findings from this survey indicate an important shift in focus for American higher education away from measuring progress by students’ seat time and accumulation of credits toward clarifying more transparently what students are expected to learn,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. “Colleges and universities increasingly are emphasizing educational practices that help students both achieve essential learning outcomes and also demonstrate their achievement across multiple levels of learning.”

One area where survey respondents acknowledge the need for improvement is in communicating the importance of these outcomes to their students. Among those institutions with common learning outcomes, only 5% of those surveyed say that they think almost all students understand their institution’s intended learning outcomes. Another 37% believe that a majority of their students understand them.
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Assessment of Learning Outcomes Now the Norm
Seventy-two percent of AAC&U member institutions are now assessing learning outcomes across the curriculum, and an additional 24% say they are planning for this type of educational assessment.

Most colleges assess cumulative learning outcomes at the departmental level rather than in general education. Nonetheless, nearly half (48%) of institutions surveyed are assessing at both the departmental level and in general education. Fully 94% either are already assessing (52%), or plan to assess (42%), general education learning outcomes across multiple courses. In an earlier AAC&U survey published in 2000, only 32 percent of institutions reported that they assessed student performance relative to general education goals either “very much” or “quite a lot.”

Colleges and universities are using a variety of approaches to assess learning outcomes:

  • 40% use rubrics
  • 37% use capstone projects
  • 35% use student surveys for assessment purposes.
  • 16% use standardized national tests of general knowledge.
  • 26% use standardized national tests of general skills, such as critical thinking.

For a full report on the findings of this survey, click here.

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