Committing to Quality: Guidelines for Assessment and Accountability in Higher Education

July 23, 2014 Zaneeta Daver

Faculty members are hearing the words “assessment” and “accountability” more often these days. Unfortunately, those words might make you cringe. You hear them and automatically think, “I am a good educator. I don’t need to prove my students are learning; I know they are. And I certainly don’t need more work.”

While working for the New Leadership Alliance for Student Learning and Accountability, I have learned that we all want the same things for students—we want them to graduate prepared for work, life, and responsible citizenship. As times have changed, so have the reasons that students attend college. In many ways, a college degree can be viewed as a commodity or product.

Whenever you buy a product, you do research (assessment) on all of the choices and pick the one that will best meet your needs for the amount of money you are willing to spend. If a product fails to meet your expectations, you might return it or never purchase it again. You value products that come from companies that are committed to quality, and you may even spend more money for higher quality.

As an educator, I wish students did not have to think about a college degree as a product because it is essential for them, as much as it is essential for the success of our country. The U.S. needs to be able to meet the job demands of the future, but awarding more degrees to meet the demands is only meaningful if those degrees are of high quality.

Students are making a large investment, in time and money, into their futures, and they need to be provided with appropriate information to make informed decisions about college. Once those decisions have been made, schools should have practices in place to measure how well students are learning and use that information to make improvements so students are provided with the best educational experience possible.

In 2012, the alliance published Committing to Quality: Guidelines for Assessment and Accountability in Higher Education. Endorsed by 40 national higher education organizations, this publication gives colleges a framework for making evidence-based improvements to enhance student learning.

Committing to quality means being able to answer the question, “Are our students learning?” and knowing how effective your institution is at achieving its goals. If your institution doesn’t know its current level of performance, how can it improve performance?

In order to do this, an institution and all of its educators should follow these four specific guidelines:

Set ambitious goals. An institution’s student-learning outcomes should clearly articulate what students should be able to do, achieve, demonstrate, or know upon graduation. They should be written at not only the institutional level (the outcomes for all graduates regardless of major) but also the department/program level in academic affairs and student affairs. Everyone on campus should be educating students towards the same overall outcomes.

Gather evidence of student learning. Institutions should have a documented assessment plan. Assessment activities should be systematic, ongoing, sustainable, and integrated into the culture of the college or university. The institution’s overall plan for assessing institutional-level outcomes should include the plans for academic and cocurricular department/program level plans.

Use evidence to improve student learning. Once evidence is gathered, an institution should analyze the data, discuss the results, and make recommendations for improvements. An institution must know where it is succeeding and where improvement is needed. The evidence should also be used for strategic planning, priority setting, and budgeting; and it is most critical that there is movement from recommendations to implementation and action.

Report evidence and results. Institutions should report on the evidence and results, as well as the process, with all stakeholders (internal and external), and they should do so in appropriate ways and with appropriate language. The information should be easily accessible to those looking for it.

It is the alliance’s hope that those in college and university communities—including presidents and chancellors, faculty members, and academic and student affairs administrators—will share and discuss these principles and, ultimately, put them into practice. By following the aforementioned guidelines, a college or university can establish an institution-wide assessment plan that will allow it to demonstrate the quality of the degrees it offers and reaffirm the value of graduating from the institution.


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