Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Assessing Learning Outcomes Across Institutions

Courtney Peagler

Seeing the Forest and the Trees: Assessing Learning Outcomes Across Institutions

With Americans increasingly losing confidence in the value of higher education, today's institutions are under more pressure than ever to provide hard evidence that their students learn what they need to be successful. While the outcomes assessment process is essential for producing this information, each institution varies significantly in its assessment criteria and curricular requirements. 

Creating a cross-country benchmark for student learning is the key to solving this dilemma.

The importance of student learning outcomes assessment in higher ed

Outcomes assessments are a vital component in demonstrating institutional performance to key stakeholders — specifically students, their families, donors, and federal and state governments.

Most outcomes assessments focus on overall achievements, such as:

  • Graduation rates.
  • Loan default rates.
  • Employment in the student's chosen field.

But there's more to the picture than what happens after a student completes their program. Student learning outcomes assessment is a specific type of outcomes assessment that shifts the focus to the skills and knowledge an institution expects a student to master by the time they graduate. 

Assessing student learning outcomes is just as important as evaluating institutional outcomes, as it provides key context for post-graduation student success rates. Essentially, it helps answer whether students are learning what they need to be successful in their chosen career — and, if not, it allows institutions to identify how they can improve to meet those goals. 

Comparing assessment of learning outcomes across institutions

Each higher education institution is unique in its mission, academic programs, and student body, so it makes sense that each would use different ways to assess learning outcomes. That said, the recent demands for accountability have sparked a paradigm shift in how we evaluate learning in American institutions. 

In response, assessment professionals have begun several initiatives to standardize student learning outcomes assessment across institutions and state lines. This standardization helps connect outcomes of equivalent programs and courses for easier comparison between schools.

The Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment

Now known as the VALUE Institute, the Multi-State Collaborative to Advance Learning Outcomes Assessment (MSC) was one such initiative that aimed to develop a scalable way of assessing essential knowledge and skills without relying on standardized test scores, indirect surveys, or common assignments.

In the MSC's 2014 pilot study, participants collected more than 7,200 faculty-graded student papers from 76 institutions across nine states and focused on three learning outcomes:

  • Quantitative literacy
  • Written communication
  • Critical thinking

To simplify and streamline the direct assessment of student learning outcomes, the study utilized a user-friendly assessment software that made uploading and scoring student work a quick, easy process.  

The project expanded to include 12 states and more than 100 institutions over the course of its five-year run, improving assessment validity and reliability through each iteration. It sparked important conversations about the intentions behind specific assignments, inspiring faculty to explore questions such as:

  • What is this assignment asking students to do?
  • Are faculty providing enough guidance?
  • Does the prompt elicit the types of outcomes students should achieve in the course?

It also encouraged faculty to consider which assignments are most likely to yield the best assessment data by comparing how faculty at other institutions scored similar work. The project, which closed in 2019, was a massive success, earning praise from state leaders and institutional representatives. 

The WICHE Interstate Passport Initiative

The lack of credit mobility is a major obstacle for many students, including transfer students and those applying to advanced degree programs. Creating a standardized framework for transfer based on student learning outcomes rather than specific courses helps administrators determine a student's place on the curriculum map so they don't have to spend extra time and money on general education courses they've already completed.

That's what the Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education (WICHE) aimed to accomplish with its Interstate Passport initiative. The project, which ran from 2011 to 2023, brought together faculty from various institutions throughout the Western United States to agree on a set of learning outcomes that map to those outlined by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U):

  1. Oral communication
  2. Written communication
  3. Creative expression
  4. Quantitative literacy
  5. Critical thinking
  6. Human cultures
  7. Natural sciences
  8. Human society and the individual
  9. Teamwork and value systems

The idea behind this consensus was to create a new currency for block transfer of lower-division general education credits. The project also prompted faculty members at participating institutions to critically consider the criteria they used to determine student achievement of these outcomes, as that evaluation directly impacts a student's eligibility for transfer.

Although the initiative has ended, institutions can still access materials related to the Interstate Passport from the WICHE website. These materials provide helpful guidance on block transfer of credits, articulation agreements, curricular alignment, and more.

Common threads: Key takeaways of outcomes assessments across state lines

The ultimate goal of outcomes assessment is to demonstrate that the institution teaches what it claims to teach. Whether you're a community college, vocational school, or traditional four-year institution, these three best practices are essential for conducting thorough student learning assessments.

1. Create and use detailed rubrics

Rubrics are excellent tools for any type of assessment — including at the institutional level. In addition to saving time during the scoring process, a well-developed rubric clarifies your expectations for the assessment and standardizes your grading criteria so you can ensure fair results. 

Rubrics also enable you to assess your assessments, so you can ensure you're collecting relevant data that connects clearly to student outcomes and commit to real continuous improvement. 

2. Use multiple assessment methods

Combining direct and indirect assessment methods helps paint a more complete picture of student learning and achievements. Direct assessments, such as exams and reports, provide quantitative proof of student learning. This is the hard evidence faculty will use to demonstrate that students are achieving the intended outcomes at the right times.

Indirect assessments, such as end-of-course evaluations and student satisfaction surveys, supplement the data collected in direct assessments by assessing student opinions on factors such as course content and instructor effectiveness. 

3. Invest in a robust assessment software solution

A well-designed assessment analytics platform can dramatically simplify the assessment process. Split displays allow you to compare student assessments against common rubrics on the same screen, eliminating the need to constantly switch back and forth between documents.

And deep integrations with other education technologies — such as leading learning management systems (LMS), student information systems (SIS), and other analytics tools — allow you to combine data from multiple sources into one easily accessible database. This direct access means you can generate the actionable insights you need when you need them, saving valuable time for busy faculty members.

Streamline learning outcomes assessment processes with Watermark

If your institution is looking for a way to improve your assessment processes, partnering with Watermark can help you achieve those goals. Learn more about using Watermark Outcomes Assessment Projects — or any of our solutions — by requesting a personalized demo.

Streamline learning outcomes assessment processes with Watermark

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