NEW YORK – Margaret A. Miller, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Center for the Study of Higher Education and an expert on learning outcomes, likes to compare the state of the student assessment movement to the different stages of grief.
After she listened to presentations by prominent researchers and educators at a Teagle Foundation meeting over the weekend called “What Works and What Matters in Student Learning?” she reaffirmed a conclusion that she had reached earlier this year: The assessment movement has moved on from a stage of denial in its early years to a state of (reluctant) acceptance now.
The Spellings Commission report drew national attention to the issue, she said, and when Academically Adrift (a 2011 book that painted a devastating picture of student learning) arrived, people were ready to hear it. “I think what is happening here is that the education community is beginning to work together on these problems for analysis and solutions," she said. The Teagle meeting, she said, reinforced her sense that there are “islands of serious activity that are growing and spreading their influence.”
And while many of those present at the meeting could be classified as true believers in the assessment movement, almost everyone who was there agreed that there is a wider embrace of the movement, and talk that might have been considered “strange” a few years ago is now considered normal.
Evidence of this was on display at the meeting Friday in a session called “A Marketplace of Ideas,” where presenters talked about topics related to assessment such as institutional cultures, cognitive science and its links to student learning, and why certain teaching strategies might work and some might not.
One presenter, G. Christian Jernstedt, a professor of psychological and brain science and director of the Center for Educational Outcomes at Dartmouth College, used the example of how different techniques used in the Olympic sport of long jump over the years have led to improvements in performance in the last century, and how something similar might be possible with student learning outcomes.
Another idea discussed at the meeting was the use of e-portfolios by students -- online compilations of their academic work and their learning experience -- to assess student learning. J. Elizabeth Clark, a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College, where students use e-portfolios, said that they enable students to think about what they are learning. “Many campuses are using it to aid assessment, to understand how students are developing while they are at the institute,” she said. At LaGuardia, the e-portfolios were used in a recent accreditation process as evidence of assessment of student work, she said.
Russell Berman, a professor of comparative literature and director of the German studies program at Stanford University, said that as a result of what he heard at the Teagle meeting, he had a better understanding of e-portfolios and how they were more than a career preparing dossier. Berman, a former president of the Modern Language Association, said there is an opportunity to do something exciting with student learning outcomes, but more institutional leaders have to commit to change. “If we don’t transform, we will have an ever tinier tier of institutions and population enjoying an ever more nostalgic college experience while every one else gets treated badly,” he said.
So how do experts view the current state of the student assessment movement?
David Paris, executive director for the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, said the question has shifted away from whether assessment is necessary to evidence that “things are coming together” -- be it the Teagle meeting, which had a special focus on the humanities, or the Council of Independent Colleges using the Collegiate Learning Assessment in a seven-year project to measure student learning outcomes at numerous institutions.
"If there is continual tinkering [with using assessment], there will be significant changes over time,” said Fred Ohles, president of Nebraska Wesleyan University. “There are good instruments available. Regional accreditors have incorporated [student learning outcomes] in their framework. The climate is generally more positive than the political rhetoric suggests."
Richard Morrill, president of the Teagle Foundation, said in his closing address that there is now a “mature set of activities” around the student assessment movement, as compared to the prevailing landscape around assessment at a similar meeting in Durham, N.C., about five years ago. Morrill said there was less anxiety, and a “wonderful pluralism of opportunities.”
While many observers would agree that the movement to assess student learning continues to build support, most of the attendees at the Teagle meeting tend to be among the supporters of the movement. Many faculty members -- while not objecting to assessment per se -- continue to argue that an emphasis on national norms may not be the best way to improve many colleges. They fear that administrators have been quick to add assessment requirements and paperwork without actually using the results. And many say that professors have largely been left out of these conversations.
Richard Arum, co-author of Academically Adrift, who gave the opening address at the meeting, said he had no doubt that a growing community of educators have an interest in student learning and assessment. “For example, you could measure the number of staff in colleges and universities involved in learning and assessment,” he said.
“This is encouraging, but it is far from the transformative change you would truly need in higher education to truly address these problems,” he said. Arum said an exogenous shock might be necessary to shake things up, be it disruptive technology or fiscal pressures. “Unless you change the incentive structure, you will see very few major gains,” he said.
But when that time comes, discussions like the one this weekend at Teagle, Arum said, will mean that no one will be starting from scratch. “We have a knowledge base and a community, and a lot of useful ideas,” he said.