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Outcomes Assessments at UT

Handbook on Assessment


What is learning outcomes assessment?

There are many definitions, but here is a brief one: the systematic and methodologically sound examination of student learning outcomes for the purpose of program improvement.

Another definition, somewhat more elaborate, is the following: an ongoing process aimed at understanding and improving student learning. It involves developing explicitly measurable expectations that are publicly comprehensible; setting clear criteria for learning which are of a quality relevant to the mission and capabilities of an institution; systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how will learning reflects those standards and expectations; and using the resulting information to document, explain, predict, and improve performance. It is a shared culture of continuous improvement in higher education.

There are several important points about student learning outcomes assessment that faculty should keep in mind:

  • Assessment is a form of program evaluation, not a mandate to assess each individual course. Of course, courses make up the curriculum, but student learning outcomes assessment should focus on efforts to evaluate the overall program and not individual courses. Course-embedded assessment is certainly a viable means of "rolling up" to programmatic assessment, but these methods are not the end-point of programmatic assessment.
  • Student learning outcomes assessment is not a variation on classroom grades. This is an essential distinction; grades are summative evaluations of individual student performance while student-learning outcomes is the formative evaluation of an academic program. As such, learning outcomes assessment focuses on the continuous improvement of academic programs rather than the semester-by-semester evaluation of individual student progress.

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Why must my department do this?

The most oft-cited rationale for engaging in learning outcomes assessment is the increasing pressure from external agencies for transparency and accountability. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) and the U.S. Department of Education requires that institutions engage in learning outcomes assessment across all programs. SACSCOC requirements require that the institution identifies expected outcomes for its educational programs and its administrative and educational support services, assesses whether the it achieves these outcomes and provides evidence of improvement based on analysis of those results.

Beyond these external mandates, assessment is an excellent means by which faculty can monitor the ongoing success of academic programs in order to improve the curriculum. This is an extension of the distinction between grading and outcomes assessment.

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Why did SACS get in the assessment business?

The primary impetus for accrediting agencies to focus on student learning outcomes has been the series of reauthorizations of the Higher Education Act that was carried out by Congress on a regular cycle. The Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act has placed an increasing burden on accrediting agencies in the area of assessment. The federal government is willing to withhold financial aid funds to institutions who do not meet accreditation requirements. The following is an excerpt from a publication by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation entitled, "Is Accreditation Accountable?"

"Accrediting organizations are accountable if they do a responsible job of carrying out reviews and there is evidence that institutions and programs perform well and that students learn. Accreditation's capacity to produce this evidence of performance and outcomes has been an early focus of the federal government. 'Performance' refers to the results of the efforts put forth by an institution or program such as graduation, transfer, achievement of other educational goals or entry to graduate school. Student learning outcomes are the knowledge, skills and abilities that a student has attained as a result of engagement in a particular set of higher education experiences."

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What are the elements of a good assessment plan?

Assessment plans should adhere to the Law of Parsimony and be as simple but as robust as possible. The template for assessment reports at The University of Tampa includes the following elements:

  1. A departmental mission statement, a broad statement of purpose and goals flowing from the institutional mission.
  2. A set of student learning outcomes (SLO's) that are clearly stated and actionable.
  3. A set of methods and measures that reflect students' movement toward the achievement of learning outcomes.
  4. Baseline data representing initial administrations of the measures and against which progress may be measured.
  5. Performance targets that represent the initial desired level of performance students should achieve as a group.
  6. General summaries of the results of instrument administrations including summaries of any gaps between targets and actual performance.
  7. Evidence that the results of these measures have resulted in programmatic change to redress discrepancies between targets and actual performance.

These steps may become more complicated as a department's needs evolve, but the key is management of student learning and evidence that there is consistent effort to match learning outcomes with the departmental mission and goals by making changes to the program.

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Is there a dictionary of terminology I could refer to when creating a plan?

Yes. Some of the most important terms are defined below:

  • Mission: A general statement of the purpose and purview of a program with reference to its generic duties and focus.
  • Strategic Goal: A general statement of what students should learn, e.g. students will have knowledge of field X.

  • Objective: A more specific statement of what students should learn, e.g. students will have knowledge of sub-areas A, B, C, and D.

  • Learning Outcome: The specific knowledge, skills and abilities that a student has attained through engagement in a particular set of higher education experiences.

  • Cognitive Learning Outcomes: End results or changes in abilities related to thinking abilities, e.g. critical thinking, analysis and synthesis, and mastery of a subject area.

  • Affective Learning Outcomes: End results or changes in abilities related to socio-emotional abilities, e.g. self-awareness, intra-individual development, self-efficacy, and confidence.

  • Performance: The results of the efforts put forth by an institution or program such as graduation, transfer, achievement of other educational goals, or entry to graduate school.

  • Summative Evaluation: A process through which students or other target populations are evaluated to demonstrate achievement or mastery of a program or its contents. It is focused on individual achievement, e.g. grade in a course.

  • Formative Evaluation: A process through which students or other target populations are evaluated for the purposes of program improvement. It is focused on success of the program rather than the success of the individual within the program.

  • Value-added Assessment: An approach in which assessment focuses on gains or changes in students between entering skills and exit skills.

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Are there tools to assist in managing assessment?

Yes. The Office of the Assistant Provost (OAP) provides a Word template for every degree-granting program to guide the development of annual assessment reports. The OAP also provides a sample of a completed template as well as links to academic assessment reports deemed best practices by the OAP.

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When should departments have final assessment plans in place and begin gathering student data?

All departments should submit assessment reports in the approved template by June 1 of each academic year. Feedback is available via an assessment scorecard developed by the OAP.

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Will there be assistance offered to help departments complete plans?

Yes. OAP in conjunction with all colleges has established an Assessment Council comprised of the assistant provost and a member of each of the four colleges. Department assessment coordinators should contact the appropriate member of the Assessment Council for further information.

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