Boards and Assessing Student Learning - More Info Needed - and Wanted!

A new study from the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges suggests that boards (of trustees, regents, and so on) not only need more information about assessment of student learning outcomes - they also want this information. For WPAs and writing instructors, the AGB study holds the potential to be really useful.

The AGB report contends that, as the bodies holding ultimate responsibility for student learning, boards should know more about student learning outcomes and how they are assessed. Some key points:

  • 62 percent of the respondents (members of governing boards, primarily [but not exclusively] from private colleges) "report[] that the board does not spend sufficient time" discussing student learning assessment (5); 
  • Board members don't receive sufficient information about student learning outcomes and thus don't share an understanding of outcomes or terms associated with them; 
  • Some board members don't have sufficient information about SLOs (a key quote: "I have a perception that there must be other valid measures of student learning outcomes beyond what we currently use, but I don't know what they might be" (8).

The report (and the board members surveyed) also has some excellent suggestions regarding SLO "education," including an "annual refresher on outcomes assessment - the rationale and methodologies" (9). It also includes some excellent suggestions for board members and administrators regarding SLO assessment education for board members.

While WPAs likely won't want to gallop straight to boards of trustees, the suggestions in this report can apply to our work with individuals not so far removed from our day-to-day experience. The point is right on: We need to help those who rightly share an interest in what happens in our classes and programs understand our outcomes, why we have them, how we're assessing them, and what we're doing about them. Conducting assessment designed to improve student learning in our classes and programs _is_ important, of course! But there are larger conversations about assessment and student learning taking place that involve departments, colleges, and even entire institutions. Helping others understand the frame surrounding our assessments can be an important part of this process. In the same way, we need to understand what others need at these larger levels, as well.

The NCTE-WPA White Paper on Writing Assessment in Colleges and Universities and the WPA Assessment Gallery can be a great start on these kinds of conversations -- but more is needed, as well. For those among us who regularly talk to administrators about assessment processes (as part of committees or other structures), we can continue to talk with and listen to the ways that people conceptualize learning -- and, of course, assessment. And for those of us who don't always have those opportunities, we can try to talk with others -- instructors in our programs, department chairs, deans, or others -- who share our interests in both student learning and improvement. Regardless of our level of experience (or tenure situation), we might be able to set one goal related to communicating with others about assessment -- for instance, sharing one student learning outcome, explaining why it's important, describing what we've done to assess it, and sharing the changes we've made based on that assessment -- with a colleague in another discipline, a dean, or another administrator. And for those of us who might speak more regularly with higher-ups who do communicate with board members, we might even share this study and suggest (if we're ready) a conversation about student learning outcomes.

Whether with a board member or a colleague, the point that this report makes is crucial for all of us. Developing student learning outcomes and assessing them, then making improvements based on the assessment, is certainly important. But communicating with those who might not be familiar with the points of view or conceptualizations of learning informing that work (and remember that communicating involves speaking _and_ listening) is also critical. You can find resources for this in the WPA Assessment Gallery and Resources; there are also excellent books in our field that discuss this. Working at the local level, we can make a difference!