Blog: Idea Exchange

You Say Tomato, I Say Tomato: Are Student Performance and Student Learning Outcomes the Same Thing?

Melissa Helvey May 11, 2016

There seems to be a lot of buzz these days about student learning outcomes on campuses, from regional accreditors, and in publications such as Inside Higher Education or The Chronicle. It appears there is an unquestionable focus right now to demonstrate student success on achieving learning outcomes, whether they are at the course, program, or institutional/ General Education level.

Student performance should be one of the important factors that contribute to an institution’s success and evaluating overall institutional effectiveness.  So, are student learning outcomes and student performance the same? Can the terms be interchanged: as in, you say “student learning outcomes,” I say “student performance?”

At first blush, you might think they are relatively the same thing. I mean, student learning outcomes, student performance, just a difference in semantics, right? However, I find when I consider student performance, I’m thinking more of a moment in time than an overall assessment of knowledge. Student performance demonstrates to me how an individual student is performing at a particular time. This can be achieved through a variety of measures – a test score, assignment evaluation, an observation, etc.

When I think of student learning outcomes, on the other hand, I think of an indication of whether the student has acquired the skills and necessary requirements to successfully complete a course, program, degree, etc. To me, student learning outcomes are more longitudinal in nature. So whereas student performance may be a peek-in or snapshot in time of how a student is performing at one particular moment, student learning outcomes, to me, represent the accumulation of learning over time.

Student performance and student learning outcomes definitely inform one another. In educating our students both are necessary and integral to the assessment process. For instance, I think it’s necessary to measure student performance regularly and through a variety of measures as the results, in my view, frame the holistic view of learning over time (and student learning outcomes). However, student performance and student learning outcomes each frame the story in a different way. One is more episodic in nature and one more longitudinal. To use my tomato analogy from the title of this post, student performance would be the tomato, and learning outcomes the vine from which they came. In other words, student performance represents a tomato fresh for picking, and learning outcomes the support that frames and nurtures its growth and success.

What do you think? Do “student performance” and “student learning outcomes” mean the same thing to you? If you’re not already, I encourage you to start conversations on your campus about terms like these, what they mean to your community, and how you might assess them differently. As Linda Suskie observed in a recent blog post, “We in higher education—including government policymakers—don’t yet have a common vocabulary for assessment.” We may not be there as a larger community, but maybe you can get your campus closer!

Melissa Helvey