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Assessing, enhancing student learning a high priority

Assessing, enhancing student learning a high priority

South Bend Tribune
Published Feb. 12, 2012
Tina S. Holland

The following is in response to the February 4th opinion piece by New York University Professor Jonathan Zimmerman, entitled "Are College Students Really Learning?"  Professor Zimmerman rightfully criticizes the federal government's approach to improving higher education. The author is grossly misinformed, however, when he asserts that, "Most institutions have no meaningful way to measure the quality of their instruction." 

Zimmerman correctly points out that President Obama's narrow criteria for "better" colleges and universities focuses almost entirely on "...holding down costs, graduating students, and helping them find jobs," while neglecting the issue of whether students are actually learning anything valuable.  Zimmerman errs badly, however, when he claims that most institutions have no idea if their students are actually learning anything. 

In reality, a central focus for higher education during the past twenty years has been assessment of student learning. This kind of assessment has become crucial to every institution's regional accreditation.  Smaller, independent, liberal arts colleges in particular have made tremendous progress in our efforts not just to measure student learning, but to improve curricula and pedagogies based on the results of those measurements, and to build a culture of assessment within our institutions.  The Council of Independent Colleges (CIC), a national organization of nearly 700 small and mid-sized independent liberal arts colleges and universities, has been an especially dynamic leader in these efforts. 

Holy Cross College is among the smallest and youngest of the CIC member institutions, which has allowed us to fairly easily institute and continue to develop a rigorous system of assessment of student learning.  In some ways the Holy Cross assessment program is similar to others in that it tracks student learning in two main ways.  At the course and program level, using direct, indirect, qualitative, and quantitative measures, we are constantly evaluating how effective our courses are at producing optimal outcomes.  On an individual level, the grade earned by each student reflects how well they have engaged themselves in the learning process.  This often gets overlooked.  Grades earned are a major indication of success or failure in learning.  

In my own experience, it has been exciting for me to see our faculty take the assessment of student learning at Holy Cross to another level through a uniquely integrated approach to each student's four-year experience of intellectual and personal development.  During freshman year, Holy Cross students initiate their e-folio, an electronic portfolio which stores writing samples, reflections, exam results, and other archival data that specifically address the desired core competencies.  During the next four years, students maintain these e-folios while documenting their achievements from their coursework and other co-curricular activities, like the required internship, service-learning, and Global Perspectives experiences.  During their senior year students refine their e-folio so that it serves both as a longitudinal assessment of their learning as well as an electronic resume for potential employers. 

Additionally, every senior must successfully complete a formal Capstone presentation, a professional multimedia presentation highlighting all their achievements and articulating the student's readiness for the challenges of life beyond college.  A team consisting of college faculty and external constituents evaluates each capstone presentation and e-folio.  

The rigorous, highly integrated, personal approach to assessment of student learning at Holy Cross College is just one example of the many ways that colleges and universities are working to improve student learning.  Much more is happening in this realm than people may realize. 

Yes, higher education always should be held accountable for quality.  It must be!  Unfortunately, federal mandates for more one-size-fits-all reporting of data are a superficial and misguided attempt to encourage excellence.  Such mandates may or may not even be relevant to all institutions.  The proposed new mandates from President Obama do not focus on student learning.  They are ultimately of limited benefit, and the time and money spent collecting and reporting the data take valuable resources away from more important endeavors.  Unfortunately and ironically, such government mandates have been increasing every year, and they substantially contribute to driving up the cost of a college education.  

Speaking for a small private liberal arts college with a proven history of improving student learning, our modest resources are much better spent on assessing and enhancing the college learning experience for our students than on fulfilling more federal reporting mandates.