3 Ways to Improve Your Approach to Learning Outcomes Measurement

By Javarro Russell

Many higher education institutions are engaged in a process of conducting student learning outcomes (SLO) assessment, but struggle to implement effective assessment practices. These less-than-optimal practices often produce less-than-compelling results about what students have learned.

All too often, the accreditation process encourages compliance activities that result in the collection and organization of institutional data that, at best, describes current assessment practices on a campus. Using SLO assessments in this way — just to meet an accreditation requirement — is like purchasing a smartphone, downloading dozens of apps, and only using the device to create checklists. Instead, SLO assessments could be leveraged to foster collaboration with faculty members and administrators to research the impact of your curriculum on your student population.

Here are a few tips from our experiences with assessment experts, practitioners, and faculty members to help build a road map for turning data from these assessments into compelling stories about the teaching and learning process.

Using SLO assessments in this way — just to meet an accreditation requirement — is like purchasing a smartphone, downloading dozens of apps, and only using the device to create checklists.

~ Javarro Russell

1. Identify Goals Before Assessments are Conducted

Thinking of assessment as a research opportunity is key. The assessment process may not seem like it, but it is a quasi-experimental research project. Much like a scientist making a hypothesis before an experiment, assessment practitioners would benefit from considering the outcomes they expect to find given the students they serve and the curriculum they’ve implemented.

Consider the example of an academic program wanting to know the extent to which the general education curriculum is equipping students with the quantitative literacy skills needed for upper-level courses. A research study can be designed to determine the impact of the general education curriculum on quantitative literacy.

Developing hypotheses like these can be done well before assessments are administered to students. By establishing these goals at the outset, institutions may find their assessment process to be more useful in identifying areas where improvements can be made.

2. Bring Faculty In

Assessing student learning outcomes can be beneficial for not only administrators, but for faculty as well. While professors hold expertise in their chosen field, they may not have the background in assessment or pedagogical methods needed to leverage SLO assessments for improving the teaching and learning process.

The integration of faculty into all aspects of the assessment process allows them to make better connections between the pedagogy, the curriculum and the learning that results. When faculty members have an understanding of what’s being assessed, and how it is being assessed, they are better equipped to interpret the meaning of assessment results. Having a contextualized understanding of assessment results can empower faculty to make decisions on how the results could impact their courses and their students.

Faculty members have important insights into how students engage in individual courses and the curriculum. These insights are requisite for effective use of assessments.

3. Think of Your Curriculum as a Whole

Expectations are higher than ever for institutions to provide evidence and articulate the value of the education they provide. To be successful, whole departments must come together and think about the impact of their curriculum. Obtaining this holistic view of the curriculum is crucial to moving from a culture of accountability to a culture of evidence. This means taking an in-depth look at how each course within a curriculum is providing the educational activities students utilize for learning and practicing the outcomes you expect.

The curriculum you implement will likely be factored into the aspects of your assessment process. If your assessments are well aligned to the curriculum, you can better identify where to allocate resources or make changes when students don’t appear to achieve the expected outcomes. For example, if you find that students score below a given level on an assessment, there may be a need to add specific types of educational activities to specific types of courses across the entire curriculum to ensure students have more opportunities to meet the learning outcome.

Looking Ahead

Over the past few decades the conversations and activities around SLO assessments in higher education have significantly changed. In response to the evolving needs of institutions, ETS has developed the HEIghten® Outcomes Assessment Suite. Alongside these assessments we’ve created best practice resources for using HEIghten and other assessments to conduct research on the extent to which students are meeting learning outcomes within your institution. By leveraging these and other resources, institutions can make the best of their assessment efforts.

It’s all about improving teaching and learning, and assessment provides the evidence needed to specify those improvements.