Lauren Hudak and Greg Moran – Learning outcomes assessment is no second stringer

Learning outcomes assessment is no longer a sad substitute standing on the sidelines hoping for a chance to play when the game is out of reach. It is now a key member of the starting line up.

Today, you can see its footprint in virtually every space of the education sector, from the rarefied heights of a recent provincial report on evolving Ontario’s university funding model to the trenches of course syllabi.

Witness the media coverage and the considerable feedback we received, both inside and outside of Ontario, after the Toronto Star highlighted HEQCO’s Essential Adult Skills Initiative. This project will use Education and Skills Online to examine whether students acquire some of the key knowledge and skills they need to be successful in work and life and the degree to which students improve these essential skills from the time they begin their programs to the time they graduate.

While most of the reaction to HEQCO’s initiative has been positive, a couple of tenacious responses tend to obscure rather than clarify the issues. In the HEQCO shop, at least, these ideas illustrate well what learning outcomes assessment is not.

Misconception 1 – HEQCO seeks to use a standardized test to determine whether students are equipped for life after their higher education experience.

Learning outcomes assessment is not about finding the single magic bullet that will offer a simplistic, comprehensive measure of the full range of knowledge and skills that are important to the success of our students. Rather, it is about creating and experimenting with the best existing tools (and that piece is important) to start measuring those skills and empowering those who have the temerity to try. It is about using what is now available in our toolkit to inform our understanding of the breadth and depth our students’ knowledge, including both subject content and transferable skills. Standardized tests are only one component of this process, but they are an important complement to other well-established and non-traditional indicators of knowledge retention and understanding. These tools are not mutually exclusive.

We must also better understand how to make assessment doable for administrators and students alike. We have to be sure that we are not creating unnecessary burdens for our students, nor adding further unhelpful bureaucracy to our colleges and universities.

Misconception 2 – Standardized assessments of learning outcomes will be used to rank institutions.

Any information can be misused.  But the Ontario postsecondary sector cannot achieve the greatness that lies within its grasp if it sees only the risks in innovation. Through initiatives like HEQCO’s Learning Outcomes Assessment Consortium, we are beginning to see the power of how the indirect, sometimes unanticipated products of learning outcomes assessment can radically transform the day-to-day life of postsecondary institutions and equip our students with a better understanding of what they know and do not know – not a bad start for navigating the winding road of life.  Although there is no avoiding the possibility that any assessment can cause embarrassment in the wrong hands, the potential benefits of practical and meaningful learning outcomes assessment far outweigh these risks:

  • The full range of learning outcome-based measures complement traditional subject-based performance measures to paint a better picture of our students’ knowledge and understanding.
  • Learning outcomes assessments provide an evidence base at both the course and program level to enhance teaching and learning practices.
  • Standardized assessments can be applied across disciplines to identify best practices in pedagogy and curriculum design.
  • A learning outcomes approach highlights the transferable competencies that employers most value in their new employees including skills like resilience, communications, perseverance, crucial thinking and problem solving.
  • By providing our students with a clear understanding of the learning outcomes related to every assignment, course and program, we increase their engagement in their learning and change how they see themselves.

We owe it to our students to better understand how learning of all kinds develops and to optimize the support we provide at different points in the educational continuum.  Such knowledge is essential, to collaborate with our K-12 partners. We owe it to our students to better understand which particular disciplines are doing well in teaching and learning and how to better adapt those practices to every discipline. We owe to all who have a stake in postsecondary education – students, faculty, parents and the province as a whole – to demonstrate the effectiveness of our programs by more than anecdote and lofty claims unsubstantiated by evidence.  HEQCO is happy to provide the push and is thrilled to be joined in the effort by the nearly 20 colleges and universities who are eager to be part of the project.  The game is most definitely on.

Lauren Hudak is a senior researcher at HEQCO; Greg Moran is HEQCO’s director of special projects.

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