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National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

NILOA Guest Viewpoints

We’ve invited learning outcomes experts and thought leaders to craft a Viewpoint. We hope that these pieces will spark further conversations and actions that help advance the field. To join the conversation, click the link below the Viewpoint. You can also sign up here to receive monthly newsletters that headline these pieces along with NILOA updates, current news items, and upcoming conferences.


The Tools of Intentional Colleges and Universities: The DQP, ELOs, and Tuning
Paul L. Gaston, Trustees Professor, Kent State University


Imagine a scholar submitting an article to a learned journal. After the customary opening, the author declares that the objectives of his article are nowhere clearly defined. 'My intent will emerge in due course,'' he says. He adds that he has made no effort to structure his argument so that its different elements will add up to a coherent whole. He expects his readers to do some assembly, after all. He concludes confident that his readers will eventually appreciate the importance of his article, even though it may take them many years to do so..

The scenario is absurd, of course. Editors expect scholars to clarify their objectives and to organize their arguments with care. Otherwise, the submission earns a quick return trip.

Yet who has not heard a faculty member say that his courses must evolve each semester, that being too definitive at the beginning about what is to be accomplished leaves no room for spontaneity and exploration? And who has not heard a faculty member claim that his students learn to value his teaching months or years after the class has ended? And who has not heard a faculty member ridicule the emerging emphasis on clear learning outcomes as simply the latest fad?

The underlying issue is one of intentionality—a core scholarly virtue far too often neglected in discussions of degree-level outcomes, in departmental curricular considerations, and in the construction of syllabi. The results of this double standard can be pernicious. Students left in the dark about anticipated learning outcomes are likely to be less motivated and less persistent. Faculty unaware of a department's programmatic objectives may feel free to teach according to their own idiosyncratic preferences rather than in accord with a consensus of their colleagues. And departments without the guidance of clear degree-level outcomes at the institutional level can hardly contribute to the accomplishment of a coherent educational vision.

Intentional colleges and universities begin by defining their understanding of what degree recipients should know and be able to do. They express this definition in terms that are easily understood and that will prompt assessment. Departments then respond to this understanding by defining how student accomplishment of their specific programmatic outcomes will align with those of the university. Departments will in turn develop curricula that lead students to such accomplishment. And faculty members will make certain that the courses they teach are consistent with such curricula.

There's nothing startling here—simply the application of traditional scholarly values to college teaching. What is startling is how few colleges and universities are able to claim such intentionality. That is the bad news.

The good news is that there are tools that now provide a platform for institutions committed to greater intentionality: the "kissing cousins" of thoughtful curricular design, the Essential Learning Outcomes published by the Association of American Colleges and Universities and the Degree Qualifications Profile published by Lumina Foundation. Both documents consider the same question: What should a 21st century college education signify in terms of student learning? But they address that question in different ways. The ELO's ask what are the liberal learning objectives that represent broad requisites for effective degree programs, while the DQP asks what learning—specifically—should degree recipients be able to demonstrate. And how should they be able to demonstrate their learning. Together, these documents offer an unprecedented resource for an institution that takes seriously the challenge of greater intentionality.

And there's more good news in Tuning, the ideal complement to both the ELO's and the DQP—perhaps a second cousin? Tuning invites faculty within disciplines to frame outcomes at the disciplinary level that while consistent with degree-level outcomes enable students to understand what they should know and be able to do at each state of their professional preparation. Recent experience has suggested that the coordinated introduction of both degree-level and disciplinary outcomes as a measure of curricular effectiveness and student success offers a more secure platform for change than a focus on either by itself.

The interests of students, the credibility of disciplines, and the viability of institutions will depend increasingly on greater intentionality. Indeed, if higher education is to avoid the standardization that would destroy the valuable variety of institutions and institutional missions, higher educators must become more intentional about standards. Even as the costs of ignoring this challenge are becoming all too apparent, the benefits are becoming conspicuous.

Operators are standing by. The resources needed to respond are freely available: the ELOs and the DQP. The urgency is apparent. Why wait?

Check out our past Viewpoints:

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Evidence of Student Learning: What Counts and What Matters for Improvement
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Assessment - More than Numbers
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Challenges and Opportunities in Assessing the Capstone Experience in Australia
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Making Assessment Count
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Some Thoughts on Assessing Intercultural Competence
Darla K. Deardorff

Catalyst for Learning: ePortfolio-Based Outcomes Assessment
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The Interstate Passport: A New Framework for Transfer
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College Ratings: What Lessons Can We Learn from Other Sectors?
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Guidelines to Consider in Being Strategic about Assessment
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An "Uncommon" View of the Common Core
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Involving Undergraduates in Assessment: Documenting Student Engagement in Flipped Classrooms
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The Surprisingly Useful Practice of Meta-Assessment
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What if the VSA Morphed into the VST?
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Where is Culture in Higher Education Assessment and Evaluation?
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Embedded Assessment and Evidence-Based Curriculum Mapping: The Promise of Learning Analytics
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The DQP and the Creation of the Transformative Education Program at St. Augustine University
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Why Student Learning Outcomes Assessment is Key to the Future of MOOCs

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Measuring Success in Internationalization: What are Students Learning?
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The Culture Change Imperative for Learning Assessment
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Comments on the Commentaries about "Seven Red Herrings"
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Ethics and Assessment: When the Test is Life Itself
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Discussing the Data, Making Meaning of the Results
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Faculty Concerns About Student Learning Outcomes Assessment
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What to Consider When Selecting an Assessment Management System
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AAHE Principles of Good Practice: Aging Nicely A Letter from Pat Hutchings, Peter Ewell, and Trudy Banta

The State of Assessment of Learning Outcomes Eduardo M. Ochoa

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Being Confident about Results from Rubrics Thomas P. Judd, Charles Secolsky & Clayton Allen

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How Assessment and Institutional Research Staff Can Help Faculty with Student Learning Outcomes Assessment
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Why Assess Student Learning? What the Measuring Stick Series Revealed
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From Uniformity to Personalization: How to Get the Most Out of Assessment
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Avoiding a Tragedy of the Commons in Postsecondary Education
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In Search for Standard of Quality
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It is Time to Make our Academic Standards Clear
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