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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.


Moving beyond anarchy to build a new field
Professor Hamish Coates, Centre for the Study of Higher Education, University of Melbourne


Around the world, trust in public institutions continues to decline. Election turnouts are falling, confidence in public offices is waning, and established social institutions are increasingly exposed to critique. There are signals, too, that trust in education institutions has suffered. So as higher education grows in significance it is imperative to ensure that stakeholders have confidence in the educational system. This goes to the need for transparent reporting of core processes and outcomes. While such reporting has evolved considerably in recent decades, the reporting of student learning outcomes continues to lag.

As NILOA’s good work has shown, the assessment of higher education student learning is very important. Assessment provides essential assurance to a wide variety of stakeholders that people have attained various knowledge and skills, and that they are ready for employment or further study. More broadly, assessment results signal in a highly distilled way, the character of an institution and its educational programs. Much assessment is expensive, making it an important focus for reform. Assessment has the potential to shape educational programs and pedagogies and how people learn in direct and also indirect ways. Of course, assessment is highly relevant to individuals, often playing a major role in defining life chances and directions.

Given such significance, it is surprising that much assessment in higher education has not changed materially for a very long time, and that economically and technically unsustainable practice is rife. While there are, of course, an enormous number of innovative and high-quality developments, including those associated with technology advances, everyday around the world students still write exams using pen and paper, and sit in large halls at small desks in rows without talking. It is possible that this reflects the pinnacle of excellence. But given the lack of reflective technological advance over an extended period, this seems unlikely. Rather, given the enormous changes reshaping core facets of higher education, and pressures and prospects surrounding assessment, it is more likely that the ‘transformational moment’ has yet to come.

My recent book, Higher Education Learning Outcomes Assessment, portends that with the right investment and intellect, the assessment revolution may be closer than ever. Bringing together a decade of diverse work in the field, the book presents contemporary insights from over two-dozen leading researchers, surveys recent progress internationally, and clarifies prospects for further transformational advance.

The book unfolds in four parts. The first section focuses on planning, and explores changes in quality assurance, rationales for assessing learning outcomes, and pertinent intellectual and contextual complexities. Part two incorporates an eclectic selection of institutional, disciplinary and system-wide implementation case studies. Part three takes stock of progress, looking at the success of various assessment initiatives and the contribution of these initiatives to higher education. The final section embraces the most significant and challenging facet of this and perhaps any quality assurance effort—how to use assessment and reporting of student learning outcomes for monitoring, enhancement and improvement. Chapters in this last section re-assess the significance of this youthful field, and the role assessment can play in advancing higher education.

As many of the book’s contributions affirm, defining and assessing learning outcomes is quite new and still relatively uncommon in many parts of the world and as such can prompt understandable fears and concerns. Yet definition and measurement is an important precondition for leading improvement. To help build international capacity in this area the book advances a series of perspectives that critical consumers should ask of proposed outcomes-related initiatives. Over the next few years we will see increasing research, discussion and activity around developing metrics of various persuasions for measuring the outcomes of university education. Done well, the specification and assessment of learning outcomes has the potential to work with other initiatives to support the next wave of educational reform and improvement. Done poorly, assessment efforts risk causing organizational and even systemic harm and confusion or, more likely, simply wasting time and money. The book is offered to help frame the development of policy and practice—to help systems, institutions, staff and students yield improved returns from their higher learning investments.

What, generally, is required to effectively grow the field? Five areas of focus are worth mentioning. First, effective academic leadership is a must—political provocation may be necessary as a bootstrap, but is unlikely to spur the substantial change required. Hence, postsecondary leaders must step up to govern and manage successful change.

Second, new work on learning outcomes must be well positioned. It must complement rather than substitute for academic practice, and strengthen existing professional and disciplinary initiatives.

Third, for people to have any confidence in data and results, assessment techniques must be sound.

Fourth, particularly given investment costs associated with exploratory ventures, projects must demonstrate impact and add value. Well-composed outcomes information has the potential to drive wide ranging forms of continuous improvement.

Fifth, it is imperative that learning outcomes work spurs innovation and diversity. Outcomes assessments should not encourage test-centric curricula, teaching or learning. It would be a retrograde step for educational excellence if an assessment constrained rather than promoted innovation in educational practice.

What, then, could be forecast about the nature and prospects of change? Meaningful change seems possible, but the work will be challenging, difficult to plan, take longer than expected, and happen in unforeseen ways. Building this core facet of education will yield unexpected outcomes. New institutional and knowledge partnerships will emerge, and higher education markets will change. The re-invigoration of learning will both provoke and require the adaptation of funding streams, and new indicators of progress will surely emerge. Sound change will require new organizing mechanisms. Though more could be said, these forecasts are sufficient to signal the extent of transformation required, some aspects of which are partly underway. This book reveals the vast capability and enormous energy that people have invested, and the likely continued progress over the next decade in the advancement of higher education learning outcomes.

Coates, H. (2014). (Ed.) Higher education learning outcomes assessment. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.

Check out our past Viewpoints:

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

Addressing Assessment Fatigue by Keeping the Focus on Learning
George Kuh and Pat Hutchings, NILOA

Evidence of Student Learning: What Counts and What Matters for Improvement
Pat Hutchings, Jillian Kinzie, and George D. Kuh, NILOA

Using Evidence to Make a Difference
Stan Ikenberry and George Kuh, NILOA

Assessment - More than Numbers
Sheri Barrett

Challenges and Opportunities in Assessing the Capstone Experience in Australia
Nicolette Lee

Making Assessment Count
Maggie Bailey

Some Thoughts on Assessing Intercultural Competence
Darla K. Deardorff

Catalyst for Learning: ePortfolio-Based Outcomes Assessment
Laura M. Gambino and Bret Eynon

The Interstate Passport: A New Framework for Transfer
Peter Quigley, Patricia Shea, and Robert Turner

College Ratings: What Lessons Can We Learn from Other Sectors?
Nicholas Hillman

Guidelines to Consider in Being Strategic about Assessment
Larry A. Braskamp and Mark E. Engberg

An "Uncommon" View of the Common Core
Paul L. Gaston

Involving Undergraduates in Assessment: Documenting Student Engagement in Flipped Classrooms
Adriana Signorini & Robert Oschner

The Surprisingly Useful Practice of Meta-Assessment
Keston H. Fulcher & Megan Rodgers Good

Student Invovlement in Assessment: A 3-Way Win
Josie Welsh

Internships: Fertile Ground for Cultivating Integrative Learning
Alan W. Grose

What if the VSA Morphed into the VST?
George Kuh

Where is Culture in Higher Education Assessment and Evaluation?
Nora Gannon-Slater, Stafford Hood, and Thomas Schwandt

Embedded Assessment and Evidence-Based Curriculum Mapping: The Promise of Learning Analytics
Jane M. Souza

The DQP and the Creation of the Transformative Education Program at St. Augustine University
St. Augustine University

Why Student Learning Outcomes Assessment is Key to the Future of MOOCs

Wallace Boston & Jennifer Stephens

Measuring Success in Internationalization: What are Students Learning?
Madeleine F. Green

Demonstrating How Career Services Contribute to Student Learning
Julia Panke Makela & Gail S. Rooney

The Culture Change Imperative for Learning Assessment
Richard H. Hersh & Richard P. Keeling

Comments on the Commentaries about "Seven Red Herrings"
Roger Benjamin

Ethics and Assessment: When the Test is Life Itself
Edward L. Queen

Discussing the Data, Making Meaning of the Results
Anne Goodsell Love

Faculty Concerns About Student Learning Outcomes Assessment
Janet Fontenot

What to Consider When Selecting an Assessment Management System
R. Stephen RiCharde

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

What is Satisfactory Performance? Measuring Students and Measuring Programs with Rubrics
Patricia DeWitt

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

What Assessment Personnel Need to Know About IRBs
Curtis R. Naser

How Assessment and Institutional Research Staff Can Help Faculty with Student Learning Outcomes Assessment
Laura Blasi

Why Assess Student Learning? What the Measuring Stick Series Revealed
Gloria F. Shenoy

Putting Myself to the Test
Ama Nyamekye

From Uniformity to Personalization: How to Get the Most Out of Assessment
Peter Stokes

Transparency Drives Learning at Rio Salado College
Vernon Smith

Navigating a Perfect Storm
Robert Connor

Avoiding a Tragedy of the Commons in Postsecondary Education
Roger Benjamin

In Search for Standard of Quality
Michael Bassis

It is Time to Make our Academic Standards Clear
Paul E. Lingenfelter