Harvey P. Weingarten – Learning outcomes: Lessons learned and the next big thing

After two years of work on a series of projects to investigate the feasibility and value of a learning outcomes perspective in higher education, we have learned some important lessons about this game-changing approach.

First, the most promising aspect is the identification and measurement of general learning and cognitive skills such as critical thinking, problem solving, communication, teamwork (sometimes referred to as general skills, generic skills, transferable skills or essential employability skills).  Institutions seem to be doing a good job already of measuring disciplinary content; the majority of evaluations students are subject to attempt to measure how much disciplinary knowledge has been acquired.  Striking, however, is that regardless of the specific approach or methodology used to investigate learning outcomes, almost all of these exercises gravitate to a common set of desired general learning and cognitive skills.  And, almost all institutions would agree that mastery of these general learning and cognitive skills are goals of their educational programs.

Second, there is an entire cottage industry devoted to the writing of learning outcomes (an industry to which we have contributed).  The significant challenge in learning outcomes research is the development of reliable and valid instruments for measuring these learning outcomes.  Assessment is the next frontier.

Third, the most promising assessment mechanisms are those that are invisible to students (who are used to being repeatedly tested as part of their postsecondary experience).  The optimal strategy for measuring general learning and cognitive outcomes appears to be one in which the testing is embedded within the regular, ongoing assessments to which students are accustomed.

On the basis of these conclusions, HEQCO issued an RFP last December to solicit a consortium of postsecondary institutions that were prepared to commit themselves to the assessment of general learning and cognitive skills.  To be successful in this competition, institutions had to demonstrate that: they had already developed or adopted a set of general learning and cognitive skills to be assessed; their assessment procedures incorporated methodologies to evaluate the reliability and validity of their proposed instruments; following development of appropriate instruments the institutional plan was to assess the general learning and cognitive skills of all students; and the institution was committing  significant institutional funds and support for the project.

After internal and external independent review, six institutions were invited to join the Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium– Durham College, George Brown College, Humber College, Queen’s University, University of Guelph and University of Toronto.  The selection was based solely on the above attributes rather than geographical, sector or other considerations of balance.

Our work to date with the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes, Collegiate Learning Assessment and Tuning, as well as our 2011 conference, has shown that learning outcomes are the most fundamental element of quality assurance.  Why?  Because learning outcomes advertise the knowledge and skills an institution states a student should acquire and measures whether this knowledge and skill set have been achieved.  This is the basis of demonstrating value for money.  Learning outcomes also underpin an evidence-based credit transfer system.  Currently the amount of credit a student receives for prior learning or for having attained some other credential can be idiosyncratic and arbitrary.   However, by knowing what learning outcomes a student has already achieved and comparing that to outcomes the new program requires, the gap between what the student already knows and still needs to know can be clearly identified and the amount of credit for previous learning more easily and transparently determined.

All of the work we have conducted on learning outcomes has fueled our enthusiasm and belief that a learning outcomes perspective will result in fundamental shifts in the ways we design, deliver and evaluate academic programs, how we document student achievement and how we advertise and validate the value and worth of higher education to students, governments and the public. For these reasons, learning outcomes research remains a centerpiece of HEQCO’s research agenda. Stay tuned for more on the Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium. And thanks for reading.

-Harvey P. Weingarten, President & CEO

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