What Do Your Institution’s Students Actually Know?
7 key steps to your student learning outcomes (SLO) program

Graduation rates, performance on graduate and professional school admissions exams, or student-life amenities are currently used by institutions to showcase value. However, these outputs and features, though important, do not accurately assess the primary function of an institution – student learning and marketplace preparation.

Understandably, schools are concerned about how additional accountability measures affect institutional autonomy. But, a SLO assessment program presents opportunity for progressive leadership in higher education and offers a rare chance for college and university presidents to move beyond counting the features and output items of an institution to describing the learning that occurs among their students .

Here are 7 steps followed by successful schools when building SLO programs.  

Step 1: Keep a data-driven mindset

Data reduces inconsistencies in reporting and analysis by strengthening claims and offering stronger basis for more accurate assumptions. Identifying and having agreement throughout your institution on the most relevant and accurate data regarding student learning is critical to the assessment process.

Step 2: Define what your institution’s learning outcomes should be

Outlining the learning outcomes for your institution’s student body will influence how you design or select an assessment. Ultimately, the assessment process will provide significant and compelling information that aligns with and informs progress towards your institution’s goals. It is vital to coordinate with department heads and faculty to define what each department desires to achieve in terms of enhancing a student’s knowledge and skills. And, remember that learning outcomes are complex and may require focus concentration on select departments rather than attempting immediate all departments.

Ask yourself, “What skills or knowledge should students have after undergoing our curriculum?”

Step 3: Ask the right questions before you select assessments, and throughout the entire process

Your institution already collects information related to student learning. Before you can clearly define success parameters for your program, you must examine the collected data and determine targeted descriptions and or statements of success for your student body.

Consider these questions for getting started with the process:

  • What is our mission and who do we educate?
  • What are we already doing that measures student learning?
  • What evidence of student learning do we already have (e.g., portfolios, career or job placement information), and what conclusions can we draw from that evidence?
  • How can we support and supplement these inferences with data from new assessments?

Step 4: Select or design your assessment

Working with faculty and administrators for their input will help to create a shared understanding of your assessment process and will be essential to determining what needs to be measured as you design or select an assessment.

Choose an assessment that measures the knowledge or skills that you consider to be critical and allows you to reliably evaluate the progress of your institution’s student body.

Ask yourself, “Does this tool elicit clear evidence that a student has achieved our defined outcomes?”

Step 5: Implement the assessment program

You’ve carefully laid the groundwork for selecting your institution’s SLO program and you’re ready to implement the assessment. As you implement the program, be sure to stop and ask essential questions, such as:

  1. Are we testing enough students to validate inferences about student learning?
  2. Are our faculty members active participants in the program?
  3. Are our students motivated to perform to their highest potential?
  4. Do you have the expertise to analyze and report the data in ways that would increase the likelihood of its use?
  5. How does our data compare to that of similar institutions?

If the above answers are “no,” then implementing a long-term strategy for using your assessment data to improve student learning will never reach its full potential.

Step 6: Understand and evaluate the data provided by your assessment

Making the most of your assessment process requires that you understand the quality of the data you have about student learning. Data quality does not solely depend on the development of your assessment, it also depends on the process used to assess your students. Proper evaluation of the data requires the input of faculty members and administrators who understand the demographics and other unique traits of your student population; who are experienced in assessment design; and who understand that the goal of collecting the data is to use it in improving student learning. 

Administrators and faculty should carefully decide which aspects of data analysis should be handled by faculty and which aspects of data analysis should be performed by others, i.e., institutional researchers or experts in assessment and statistical analysis. Analyzing the data properly can help to highlight successes and identify shortfalls between goals and expectations.

Ask yourself, “Do we have sufficient campus expertise and resources to process SLO information effectively?”

Step 7: Determine what changes need to be made to achieve student learning outcome goals

If you have followed these steps, your college or university should have reliable information for making valid inferences about student learning. These inferences can be used to help guide strategic decision making regarding the improvement of student learning.

Ask yourself, “Are we using the collected data to its fullest potential?”

By following these steps, you’ll better position your institution to equip itself with the right information and reach a more empowered position to fulfill its educational mission.