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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

A Work in Progress
In 2007, with substantial new funding from the Teagle Foundation, CIC issued a call for proposals to extend and expand the consortium’s work for another three years, through the spring of 2011, to 47 of the institutions that applied. In this new phase, the emphasis will be on developing more comprehensive campus-assessment plans by incorporating additional measures such as student portfolios, campus-based instruments, and other standardized instruments such as the NSSE. Experience has shown that while the CLA provides a reliable measure of overall institutional contribution to student learning, it is most beneficial when used in conjunction with other efforts to improve student learning. Accordingly, institutions in the consortium are now expected to develop multifaceted assessment programs that best suit campus needs.

The consortium’s work has other new features as well. Some institutions will also conduct in-depth sampling, testing additional students who have characteristics of interest to the institution—division or major, gender, or race/ethnicity, for example. Also, continuing consortium members will mentor institutions that are using the CLA for the first time. Finally, in this new phase the consortium will help institutions involve increased numbers of faculty members in the assessment of student learning and introduce them to the comparative perspectives that the consortium provides. More use of results to improve pedagogy, redesign curricula, and heighten awareness of assessment throughout the campus is likely to occur.

The Council for Aid to Education has developed a new “CLA in the Classroom” program, in which faculty members can use a mock version of the instrument in individual classes as a means of gauging and improving students’ skills and can learn how to develop their own CLA-like performance tasks. In many ways, this represents the next logical phase in the development of the instrument. Created and tested with input from members of the CIC/CLA Consortium, the project provides faculty members with a set of techniques—such as scoring rubrics and test questions patterned after the CLA prompts—that apply some of the principles of performance-based assessment directly to the improvement of student learning. Marc Chun, director of CLA in the Classroom, says that the program will enable faculty members to “have a better conversation with their students about where their performance could be improved relative to higher-order skills, as well as to link institution-wide assessment with classroom-level teaching and learning.” The new instructional tools will provide faculty members with the practical means to do diagnostic work with students—and become more personally invested in an assessment-based commitment to improving student learning.

The varied experiences of the members of the CIC/CLA Consortium suggest that assessment of learning outcomes can be applied to many aspects of educational improvement. “Using the best available tests for measuring student learning and combining those with self-created instruments,” says University of Charleston’s President Edwin Welch, “is providing evidence to students and parents about the process and the results of a University of Charleston education. Improving student learning is not just good for the institution; it is precisely what students and parents deserve.”

The Collegiate Learning Assessment
The Council for Aid to Education (CAE) developed the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) as a way to measure institutional contributions to gains in student learning. The assessment provides a comprehensive measure of some of the “higher-order” skills that often overlap with the general-education goals of the undergraduate curriculum: critical thinking, analytic reasoning, problem solving, and written communication.

Unlike most tests of student learning that use multiple choice, true-false, or short-answer questions, the CLA uses written, student-constructed responses to open-ended assignments. In contrast to subject-domain instruments that test students’ knowledge of particular disciplinary content, the CLA poses real-world problems that students must address by evaluating evidence, synthesizing information, drawing conclusions, and constructing their own arguments for or against a particular position.

The CLA uses three key measures to assess student abilities:
• Make an Argument. The ability to take and justify a position on an issue.
• Critique an Argument. The ability to evaluate an argument for how well reasoned it is.
• Performance Task. The longest section of the test asks the student to complete a real-world task, such as preparing a briefing report using a set of provided materials.

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Members of The CIC/CLA Consortium (2005-2008) Alaska Pacific University (AK) Allegheny College (PA) Aurora University (IL) Averett University (VA) Barton College (NC) Bethel University (MN) Cabrini College (PA) Centenary College (NJ) Charleston Southern University (SC) College of Saint Benedict/Saint John’s University (MN) Franklin Pierce University (NH) Heritage University (WA) Indiana Wesleyan University (IN) Loyola University New Orleans (LA) Lynchburg College (VA) Marian College (WI) Pace University (NY) Pacific University (OR) Seton Hill University (PA) Southwestern University (TX) Stonehill College (MA) Texas Lutheran University (TX) University of Charleston (WV) University of Evansville (IN) University of Great Falls (MT) Ursinus College (PA) Ursuline College (OH) Wagner College (NY) Wartburg College (IA) Wesley College (DE) Westminster College (MO) Westminster College (UT) William Woods University (MO)

Richard Ekman is president of the Council of Independent Colleges. He previously served as vice president for programs of Atlantic Philanthropies; secretary of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation; and at the National Endowment for the Humanities, where he was director first of the Division of Education Programs and subsequently of the Division of Research Programs. Previously he was vice president and dean, as well as a tenured member of the history faculty, at Hiram College and assistant to the provost at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. Stephen Pelletier provides writing, editing, and editorial-consultant services for associations, foundations, nonprofit organizations, and corporations. Pelletier previously served as vice president for communications at the Council of Independent Colleges, associate director of communications at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and senior director of publications at the National Association of International Educators.