Direct Evidence of Learning

by Brooks Doherty

Just a few days after my last post, which advocates for greater attention to instructional quality in higher education along with greater learning outcomes transparency, The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment released a report detailing the state of such transparency at our colleges and universities. While the overall findings are rather promising, I want to focus on one tiny but critical moment tucked quietly into the middle of the report.

In 2010, the NILOA spent many hours combing through the websites of hundreds of colleges and universities, analyzing the level and nature of learning outcomes transparency. Which colleges publish what their students were learning? Were these colleges providing data that could be directly linked to teaching and learning, or simply indirectly? In short, are colleges providing prospective students, families, elected officials, and the public-at-large information that helps us understand what a degree from your institution means?

The nugget on which I would like to focus: This 2010 study showed the 200 institutions assessed provided “more information with indirect evidence of student learning than was found in 2009 but less evidence of capstones and portfolios.” In other words, colleges and universities were more likely to provide (indirect) evidence surrounding graduation and persistence rates, or student and alumni surveys versus (direct) evidence of student learning such as results from internships, capstone projects, portfolios, state or local standardized tests.

I am encouraged by the movement toward transparency since the Spellings Commission pointed out its scarcity six years ago. Building upon the publicizing of these data loosely connected to the classroom, it’s imperative now that colleges and universities begin to better understand how to measure and show the public what learning with them looks like: tell them what your degree means. This need not necessitate widespread standardized testing at the post-secondary level, but will need to focus equally as closely on the learning process as it does currently on the learning product.

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Filed under accountability, education, learning outcomes

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