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Assessing Student Learning: A Work in Progress

Assessing Student Learning: A Work in Progress

Richard Ekman and Stephen Pelletier, Change Magazine

December 02, 2009

Consortium members administer the assessment to cross-sectional samples of first-year students in the fall and seniors in the spring, analyzing the results to determine their areas of strength or weakness in generating student learning and developing appropriate strategies to address the weaknesses. A team of faculty members and administrators from each member institution participates in an annual summer meeting of the Consortium, during which ideas and strategies are shared—a form of mutual support that is continued throughout the year via web conferences, listservs, and email. Team members also serve as interpreters of the CLA on their campuses and as resource persons in assessing student learning more generally.

Using the CLA for Institutional Purposes
The advent of moderately priced, reliable, standardized assessment instruments is equipping college leaders with new tools by which to gather evidence about student learning. Until the development of the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) and the CLA, most colleges’ approaches to assessing student learning had been anecdotal and attitudinal. For example, Terrence Grimes, vice president for academic affairs at Barton College in North Carolina, recalls a time when writing portfolios were expected of students there but were never collected or analyzed, and when some courses that ostensibly emphasized writing “really didn’t.” In short, he says, there was very little concrete evidence of students’ competence in writing.

The potential benefits of using the CLA go well beyond its use as an assessment instrument, especially given the right timing and fit with institutional culture and concerns. At Barton, for instance, the CLA was introduced in 2005 in conjunction with a review of the general education curriculum. At that time, according to Grimes, there was also pressure on Barton from its regional accreditor to develop quality-improvement programs. After some difficulties in the early administration of the instrument, the CLA was integrated into the first-year program as well as administered to seniors.

The CLA showed that a Barton education added value to students’ skills, but the faculty was nevertheless disappointed in the absolute quality of the writing, even for seniors. When, in the spring of 2007, members of the board of trustees reviewed the CLA results, they came away with the same impression. As associate professor of biology Kevin Pennington noted, although the faculty were initially “leery about the effectiveness” of using the CLA, the results “allowed us to talk meaningfully, beyond anecdotes, about how to improve student writing.” The changes in the general-education program, Grimes reports, are now being implemented, and the college is relying on “CLA-style” exercises and measurements through the first three years of study.

Cabrini College in Pennsylvania also used the CLA in conjunction with a reform of general education. One additional result at Cabrini has been especially important—Charlie McCormick, dean for academic affairs, believes that the “value-added” results also gave Cabrini a new way to talk about itself in the competitive market of colleges in the Philadelphia area, as well as a renewed sense of institutional identity.

Presidents of other institutions that participate in the CIC/CLA Consortium have also affirmed its usefulness. Alaska Pacific University uses CLA-based exercises in its faculty development programs. And Richard Cook, president of Allegheny College in Pennsylvania, says, “I think it’s vitally important both for demonstrating value-added and for improving what we do.” Edwin H. Welch, president of the University of Charleston in West Virginia, agrees. As a board member of a regional health facility, he had seen how outcomes-based quality-improvement programs were an effective mechanism for institutionalizing improved practice in health care. He noted that assessing, documenting, and improving quality at regular intervals were accepted as requirements in healthcare and immediately saw that similar practices could be established in higher education. Welch’s observations parallel those of Antul Gawande in his “Bell Curve” article in The New Yorker (December 6, 2004).