Higher Education Learning Outcomes Assessment Movement Moves Away from Standardized Tests, According to National Survey

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The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) released its third report from a national survey of Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) conducted by Hart Research Associates.  This year’s report, “Trends in Learning Outcomes Assessment,” highlights findings from the 2015 survey of a representative sample of chief academic officers at AAC&U member institutions including respondents from across the full spectrum of public, private, two-year, and four-year institutions.

Two earlier reports from the 2015 survey summarized findings related to general education redesign, high-impact teaching practices, and priorities for advancing diversity, equity, and underserved student success.

“It has been clear for some time that educators and employers have reached strong agreement that specific cross-cutting capacities or learning outcomes are absolutely necessary for any graduate who wants to succeed in today’s economy and in a complex, fast-changing world,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. “Unfortunately, the evidence also shows—compellingly—that many college graduates are weak on exactly these skills—critical thinking, problem-solving, communication, integrative learning, and the like. In this context, the good news from this new study is that higher education now is using assessment tools designed to help faculty and institutions tackle, target, and solve the chronic problem of weak student performance on these essential learning outcomes.  The assessment shift from tests that were disconnected by design from students’ course of study toward assessment tools that are anchored directly in students’ assignments across-the-curriculum is a huge cultural shift.  Assessment is poised, at long last, to become a tool for learning improvement, and not just a compliance exercise whose results leave educators mystified rather than usefully informed.”

Key Findings: Consensus on Learning Outcomes

  • Eight-five percent of CAOs report that their institution has a common set of intended learning outcomes that apply to all students. In an earlier 2008 survey, only 78 percent reported having common learning outcomes.
  • There is significant agreement across all institutional sectors among AAC&U member institutions about the learning outcomes that are important for all students. The outcomes most commonly named by institutions across different institutional types have remained remarkably stable in recent years.
  • One area where institutions are placing more emphasis is in learning outcomes related to research skills and integrative projects. Institutions today prioritize not only broad knowledge and cross-cutting skills like writing or quantitative reasoning, but 75 percent of institutions report requiring all students to attain research skills as part of earning their undergraduate degrees.

Key Findings: Increasing Percentage of Institutions Assess Students’ Achievement of Learning Outcomes Beyond Grades; More Assessment in Departments than in General Education

  • 87 percent of AAC&U member institutions assess learning outcomes across the curriculum, up from 72 percent who said they did so in 2009. Another 11 percent report that they have plans to assess outcomes and only 2 percent say they are not assessing learning outcomes and have no plans to do so.
  • Most institutions are assessing cumulative learning outcomes in departments, including 40 percent that report doing so in all departments.
  • More than two in three institutions report assessing cumulative learning outcomes in general education which is up from 52 percent who reported doing so six years ago.

Key Findings: Most Institutions Assessing Learning Outcomes Report Using Rubrics Applied to Student Work

  • Among those that report assessing outcomes in general education, most (87 percent) use institutionally created rubrics applied to samples of student work. Seventy-eight percent report gathering assessment data using capstone projects.
  • AAC&U released a set of nationally validated rubrics as part of its Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) initiative in 2010. Today, 42 percent of AAC&U member institutions report using these rubrics to assess student learning. In addition, among those using their own institutionally created rubrics, well over half (58 percent) say the VALUE rubrics informed the development of their locally created rubrics.

Key Findings: Higher Education Institutions Moving Away from Use of Standardized Tests

  • About one-third of AAC&U member institutions report using standardized tests of general knowledge and 38 percent report using standardized national tests of general skills, down from 49 percent who reported using these tests in 2008.

“With our society and economy demanding more of college graduates, it is imperative that colleges and universities gather meaningful data on how well students are attaining important learning outcomes and use that data to improve their approaches to curricular design and their faculty members’ use of effective teaching methods,” said AAC&U Senior Vice President for Academic Planning and Public Engagement Debra Humphreys.  “This survey shows that institutions are becoming far more adept at using sophisticated assessment approaches and are poised to use these approaches to make clearer how well students are attaining the outcomes everyone agrees are important for success in today’s competitive global economy.”

Find full findings from the current and previous reports, including survey methodology, online here.

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