Often times it is with great intentions that institutions engage in assessing student learning, querying if their programs and curricula are doing what they are designed to achieve, if students are learning, and exploring what they might do to better enhance student learning within the institution. And yet, much of assessment is something that we do to students as opposed to with students. Allow me to give an example on how our work related to learning within higher education is not explicit to or connected with students.
I travel quite frequently to speak with institutions and various groups about their assessment work. While on the plane I chat with my seat partner as to whether we are traveling for business or pleasure, where we are from, and what we do. My airplane speech related to my work with the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, NILOA for short, is to say that I work at a research institute which examines how do you know if students learned anything in college. Without fail, my distinguished and varied seat partners will lean back and say, “I didn’t learn a thing in college!” It is so frequent a response that at this point, I expect the reply and have yet to be disappointed.
They then go on to tell me that in spite of their college they engaged in teamwork, they are critical thinkers, and that their on-campus employment and student affairs related activities gave them leadership skills. That their time in college gave them the skills to be life-long learners, communicate well, and engage in using various sources of evidence to make decisions. And yet, they are adamant that these knowledge and skill sets did not come from the institution they attended, but instead was something they were able to acquire along the way or on the side.
As any good researcher would do, I press them to tell me a bit more about what they mean when they say they didn’t learn anything in college because most of the examples they provide me with are exactly the sort of outcomes we are striving towards. What they mean is that they don’t remember the content. They couldn’t tell you what date a particular event in history took place that was covered in a course, they can’t remember the exact theory of a specific theorist addressed in a class, and because they can’t recall the content information they believe they did not learn.
Right now on planes, trains, buses, and cars are students that have been through our institutions unaware of the larger outcomes we sought to help them achieve, the outcomes which we build our curriculum and programs around, the goals to which we strive, and the measures we use to ensure we are helping students to reach them. They are our advocates, our alumni, parents and family members of future college students – and they are unaware that we have been successful in our goals because they did not know that the outcomes they describe are what we are trying to achieve. If you wander around a college campus and ask current students what they believe they are learning, what the goals of a college might be – their answer is remarkably similar to those who have graduated that I encounter on my plane rides.
Higher education finds itself in interesting times. We are queried as to the quality of our degrees, the value that we add to students, if it is even worth the cost of attending – and our students, who have the potential to be advocates as to these queries, are not partners in our responses. They are unaware of our outcomes, our assessment efforts, our curriculum design. They are unaware of the larger goals to which we strive as institutions to enhance their learning in part because we spend so much time doing assessment and not communicating about it. We rarely make explicit to students our learning outcomes, our hopes for them, why we are asking them to take the courses we are asking them – and as a result, unsurprisingly, they are unaware.
It is time that we make the implicit explicit. That we engage with our students so they are partners in the assessment process. That they are equipped with the language, self-awareness, and reflection skills to speak about their learning in ways beyond content knowledge. That we involve them in the assessment process such that they are able to learn and grow along with our programs and institutions. I look forward to such a time when students are active participants in assessment on campuses so when I am traveling and share with my seat mate my work at NILOA, they can tell me (along with their employers and policymakers) the various knowledge and skills they were able to acquire in partnership with their institutions. And all it takes is a knowledge and skill set we ask of our students – clear communication and active participation.
About The Author
Natasha Jankowski, Associate Director of NILOA and Research Assistant Professor with the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has presented at numerous national conferences and institutional events, and written various reports for NILOA. Her main research interests include assessment and evaluation, organizational evidence use, and evidence-based storytelling. She holds a PhD in Higher Education from the University of Illinois, an M.A. in Higher Education Administration from Kent State University, and a B.A. in philosophy from Illinois State University.
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