Learning Outcomes Assessment in Community Colleges

National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) Occasional Paper No. 10

Authors: Charlene R. Nunley, Trudy Bers, and Terri M. Manning

 

Reviewed by Patricia Windham

The authors of Learning Outcomes Assessment in Community Colleges have community college experience—one is a former president and two are currently working as institutional research (IR) professionals. Because of this personal experience, the authors write in a way that easily connects with people working in a community college.

The paper might have been more appropriately called The Status of Learning Outcomes Assessment in Community Colleges. It provides background on the learning outcomes assessment process, information from two national surveys (the National Community College Council for Research and Planning [NCCCRP] and NILOA), and recommendations for beginning such a process at an institution. The NCCCRP survey was only sent to community college IR professionals, and NILOA solicited responses only from chief academic officers at associate degree institutions.

"The authors have presented a solid foundation for the necessity of learning outcomes assessment for today’s community college." 

Learning Outcomes Assessment in Community Colleges is not designed to present a step-by-step assessment process, nor does it contain a collection of actual measures that could be used in the process. The paper begins with background material on the current demand for assessment, accountability, and transparency within higher education. One of the authors was a member of the U.S. Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education, more commonly known as the Spellings Commission. In that position, she was able to witness the converging trends of both state and national emphases on assessment.

U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, said in an October 5, 2010, speech, “we want to hold our institutions accountable.” Often this accountability is referring to the small number of associate degree and certificate completers compared to the size of an entering cohort. In order to increase the number of graduates, an institution must be able to determine and measure milestones along the path to completion. Assessing student learning outcomes is part of that process.

The paper contains several data tables based on the surveys that show the percentages of respondents who answered positively to similar questions. This provides a way of contrasting the thoughts of chief academic officers and IR professionals. It also illustrates areas that may need additional work in terms of helping either group understand current climates on the national, state, and local levels. The data indicate the current thinking of chief academic officers and IR professionals with regard to learning outcomes assessment. In general, the chief academic officers appear to be favorable in their support of learning outcomes assessment. IR staff appear to have more questions of a practical nature, including topics related to data sources and staff resources. As the authors state, “the skill needed to do effective learning assessment by faculty is often at a premium on community college campuses, making reliance on professional staff with assessment and research expertise even more important” (p. 16); the large number of small IR offices at community colleges makes that difficult to provide.

The paper also contains three examples of institutions where learning outcomes assessment is taking place and provides contact information. The final section is a list of guidelines and cautions higher education professionals should consider when starting this process. 

“…the paper is good background reading for professionals at institutions where learning outcomes assessment processes are being initiated. It provides information on why the process is necessary, which may be of value in bringing different sections of the college community on board.”

The authors have presented a solid foundation for the necessity of learning outcomes assessment for today’s community college. They have also included useful information from the NILOA and NCCCRP assessment surveys. The presentation of the contrast between academic officers and IR professionals can help prepare officials for potential differences they may encounter on their own campuses. Several of the questions included in the tables may be of value for consideration by institutions engaging in this process.While the three examples are of value, they are very short and thus provide only broad examples of items used, changes, and other types of results. IR professionals would probably like to have more details about the process and perhaps even some data; this would assist them in making recommendations for what might be appropriate at their institutions. Similarly, there are no metrics in the paper, but there are references to the Voluntary Framework of Accountability developed by the American Association of Community Colleges and the metrics it provides.One of the more useful aspects of the paper is the list of guidelines and cautions that begin on page 20. These provide several good thoughts on aspects of the process that should be considered prior to starting this type of assessment on campus.

In conclusion, the paper is good background reading for professionals at institutions where learning outcomes assessment processes are being initiated. It provides information on why the process is necessary, which may be of value in bringing different sections of the college community on board. The survey information can be used as a potential source of different views on the various aspects of student learning outcomes assessment. Probably of most value to an institution is the list of guidelines and cautions, which will help higher education professionals as they prepare to embark on the process of assessing student learning outcomes.

Reference

Duncan, A. (2010, October). The Linchpin: The New Mission of Community Colleges. Remarks presented at the White House Summit on Community Colleges. Posted to http://www.ed.gov/news/speeches/linchpin-new-mission-community-colleges.

Patricia Windham, Ph.D., is the former Associate Vice-Chancellor for Research and Evaluation at the Florida Division of Community Colleges. She has over 30 years experience in IR at both the institutional and state levels.

 

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