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Student Learning Assessment, and Accreditation

Note: This document will become a stand alone resource piece for the web, as well as integrated into the Commission Handbook and the Peer Reviewer Manual (to be delveoped in late 2005)

Among the public’s many expectations of higher education, the most basic is that students will learn, and in particular that they will learn what they need to know to attain personal success and fulfill their public responsibilities in a global and diverse society. Student learning is central to all higher education organizations; therefore, these organizations define educational quality–one of their core purposes–by how well they achieve their declared mission relative to student learning. A focus on achieved student learning is critical not only to a higher education organization’s ability to promote and improve curricular and co-curricular learning experiences and to provide evidence of the quality of educational experiences and programs, but also to fulfill the most basic public expectations and needs of higher education.

In October 1989, the Commission first posited that assessment of student learning is an essential component of every organization’s effort to evaluate overall organizational effectiveness. In February 2003, The Higher Learning Commission adopted a newly revised position statement on assessment of student learning (see Section 3.4-2 of the Handbook Third Edition) to reaffirm and strengthen this position. Through the Criteria for Accreditation and multiple Core Components, the Commission makes clear the centrality of student learning to effective higher education organizations and extends and deepens its commitment to and expectations for assessment. Indeed, the Commission asserts that assessment is more than a response to demands for accountability, more than a means for curricular improvement. Effective assessment is best understood as a strategy for understanding, confirming, and improving student learning.

Fundamental Questions for Conversations on Student Learning

Five fundamental questions serve as prompts for conversations about student learning and the role of assessment in affirming and improving that learning:

  1. How are your stated student learning outcomes appropriate to your mission, programs, and degrees?
  2. What evidence do you have that students achieve your stated learning outcomes?
  3. In what ways do you analyze and use evidence of student learning?
  4. How do you ensure shared responsibility for assessment of student learning?
  5. How do you evaluate and improve the effectiveness of your efforts to assess and improve student learning?

In using these questions, an organization should ground its conversations in its distinct mission, context, commitments; goals and intended outcomes for student learning. In addition to informing ongoing improvement in student learning, these conversations will assist organizations and peer reviewers in discerning evidence for the Criteria and Core Components.

The fundamental questions and the conversations they prompt are intended to support a strategy of inquiry into student learning. Further, the questions are intended to support this strategy of inquiry, built on principles of good practice, as a participative and iterative process that:

  • Provides information regarding student learning,
  • Engages stakeholders in analyzing and using information on student learning to confirm and improve teaching and learning,
  • Produces evidence that confirms achievement of intended student learning outcomes, and
  • Guides broader educational and organizational improvement.

In other words, organizations assess student learning in meaningful, useful, and workable ways to evaluate how they are achieving their commitments and to act on the results in ways that advance student learning and improve educational quality. Effective assessment of student learning is a matter of commitment, not a matter of compliance.

Evaluating the Efforts to Assess and Student Learning

Using the framework of the Criteria and Core Components, peer reviewers will evaluate an organization’s efforts to assess and improve student learning within the context of the mission, values, and distinct learning goals of that organization. Therefore, peer reviewers will not approach the review with expectations for specific ways in which assessment efforts are structured and implemented, since it is both inevitable and desirable that diverse organizations exhibit a wide variety of approaches and embed assessment of student learning in a variety of institutional forms and processes. Rather, peer reviewers will approach their roles as generalists, focused on evaluating the evidence that the organization meets the Criteria and Core Components.

To remain focused on student learning and assessment within the context and design of the organization, peer reviewers will use the fundamental questions as prompts to engage faculty, students, and administrators in conversations about the organization’s (a) sustained effort to assess and improve student learning, (b) evidence that students achieved the stated learning outcomes, (c) shared responsibility for assessing student learning outcomes, and (d) commitment to improving student learning and educational quality. These conversations will assist peer reviewers in understanding the organization’s efforts and commitment to assessment of student learning, in discerning areas for consultation and organizational improvement, and in identifying and validating evidence related to the Criteria and Core Components. Most importantly, peer reviewers will base their accreditation-related judgments and recommendations on this evidence as it relates to the Criteria and their Core Components, not as the evidence relates to the fundamental questions.

Finally, the Commission realizes that assessment of student learning is an ongoing, dynamic process that requires substantial time; that is often marked by fits and starts; and that takes long-term commitment and leadership. It is reasonable for organizations to use different approaches and timetables in implementing its assessment of student learning efforts. Nevertheless, the Commission expects that each organization has developed assessment processes that are workable, has implemented a reasonable schedule for collecting and using assessment results, and can demonstrate a sustained effort to student learning, educational quality, and organizational effectiveness.

Additional resources related to assessment of student learning, including the document, Regional Accreditation and Principles For Good Practices, which was endorsed by regional accrediting agencies, can be found on Commission’s web site. Simply follow the “Policy and Resource Documents” link, scrolling down to “Assessment of Student Learning Resources.”

 

For questions or comments about this web site please contact Nick Dvoracek