The WHY of Assessment
of Student Learning Outcomes in a Nutshell
By Dr. José Ricardo-Osorio, Modern Languages
Angelo (1995) best defined outcomes
assessment of student learning as:
An ongoing process aimed at
understanding and improving student learning. It involves making our expectations explicit
to the public; setting appropriate criteria and high standards for learning
quality; systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to
determine how well performance matches those expectations and standards; and using
the resulting information to document, explain, and improve performance.
Over the past 20
years, outcomes assessment of student learning has been central to the
accountability debate in higher education (Astin, 1987). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, pressure for
accountability from the government, taxpayers, and policymakers initiated a
systematic student outcomes assessment movement that has increasingly made higher
education institutions responsible for documenting the quality of their
students’ learning. Consequently, colleges and universities are required to
evaluate and report not only what students have learned, but also how they can
use their acquired knowledge (Banta, Black, Kahn, & Jackson, 2004).
As the outcomes
assessment movement began to permeate higher education, the definition of
institutional excellence assumed a new meaning (Frye, 1999). Astin (1987)
claimed that at first institutional excellence was documented solely by
endowment size, campus appearance, and faculty qualifications. However, the emerging
assessment movement forced higher education institutions to redefine
institutional excellence in terms that directly addressed the student learning
process (Nichols, 1995). Thus, the increased
focus on student outcomes assessment and accountability has resulted in a learning-based
model that underscores the importance of curricular planning that leads to
better student performance (Frye, 1999).
This transition to
a learning-based model has also affected the criteria for institutional
accreditation. Since the late 1980s, accreditation agencies have requested that
their affiliated institutions submit a section on student learning assessment
within their self-study plan (Gratch-Lindauer, 2002; Hatfield, 2001).
Consequently, in many accrediting regions, departments and academic units are
required to document their students’ progress through well-thoughtout
assessment strategies. These assessment strategies include program outcomes and
defined assessment measures, as well as evidence of how the assessment results
are used to improve learning (Friedlander & Serban, 2004).
institutions in appraising their assessment strategies, Astin, Banta and Cross
(1993) proposed nine principles of good practice that can be used to develop a
learning outcomes assessment plan. In their view, the plan should: 1) contain
educational values, 2) regard learning as a multidimensional phenomenon that
occurs over time, 3) have clearly stated outcomes, 4) regard outcomes and the
experiences causing those outcomes as equally important, 5) consider assessment
as ongoing, 6) include different campus constituencies in the evaluation
efforts, 7) illuminate questions that people really care about, 8) be part of a
large set of conditions that provoke change, and 9) be accountable to students
and to the public.
outcomes assessment plans should be congruent with the college or university
mission statement, and should reflect the real educational objectives of the
institution (Erford & Moore-Thomas, 2003). Learning assessment methods
described in the plan must also reflect proposed learning outcomes (Kezar,
2000). These learning outcomes must
describe exactly what students are expected to do with their acquired academic
skills (Friedlander & Serban, 2004; Frye, 1999). The plan must also provide
a rationale for assessment procedures and explicitly state who will assess the
outcomes (Nord, 2004). Finally, the assessment results must be used to improve
teaching, learning, and the curriculum (Astin, Banta, & Cross, 1993; López,
2000; Maki, 2002).
Angelo, T. (1995). Reassessing (and defining) assessment. The AAHE
Astin, A. W. (1987).
Assessment, value-added and educational excellence. New Directions for Higher Education, (59), 89-107.
Astin, A. W., Banta, T. W.,
& Cross, P. (1993). Principles of good practice for assessing student
learning. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher
Education Assessment Forum.
Banta, T. W., Black, K. E.,
Kahn, S., & Jackson, J. E. (2004). A perspective on good practice in
community college assessment. In A. M. Serban, & J. Friedlander (Eds.), Developing
and implementing assessment of student learning outcomes (pp. 5-16). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Erford, B. T., &
Moore-Thomas, C. (2003). Program
evaluation and outcome assessment: Documenting the worth of educational
programs. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED480072)
Friedlander, J., &
Serban, A. M. (2004). Meeting the challenges of assessing student learning
outcomes. New Directions for Community Colleges, (126), 101-109.
Frye, R. (1999). Assessment, accountability, and student
learning outcomes. Retrieved July 25, 2004, from http://www.ac.wwu.edu/~dialogue/issue2.html
Gratch-Lindauer, B. (2002).
Comparing the regional accreditation standards: Outcomes assessment and other
trends. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28(1-2), 14-25.
Hatfield, S. R. (2001). The student
learning self-study: Choices and opportunities. New Directions for Higher
Education, (113), 23-33.
Kezar, A. J. (2000). Teaching
and learning: ERIC trends, 1999-2000. Washington,
DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher
Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED446 654)
López, C. L. (2002).
Assessment of student learning: Challenges and strategies. The Journal of
Academic Librarianship, 28(6), 356-367.
Maki, P. L. (2002). Developing
an assessment plan to learn about student learning. Retrieved April 23, 2004, from http://www.aahe.org/assessment/assessmentplan.htm
Nichols, J. O. (1995).
Assessment planning. In J. O. Nichols (Ed.), A practitioner's handbook for
institutional effectiveness and student outcomes assessment implementation.
(3rd ed.) (pp. 123-137). New York:
Nord, L. L. (2004). Getting
staff excited about assessment. Assessment Update, 16(6), 9-10.