The Uselessness of "Student Learning Outcomes"

Ashley Thorne

Also at the Chronicle, April Kelly-Woessner has an incisive piece on outcomes assessment at her university and in higher education at large. She argues that the nation is less concerned about measuring how much students have learned than with ascertaining whether universities are being efficient stewards of funds to educate. She writes,

It is, of course, useful to measure student learning to improve our own educational programs. But professors are assessing student learning every day, as we grade papers, assignments, and exams. Good professors know what their students are learning and adapt their teaching when students fail to demonstrate adequate mastery of the material. If we are to remain competitive as a nation, we must raise our standards and expectations of students. Yet institutional assessment activities, as currently structured, contradict the intentions of those who demanded accountability, by placing unnecessary burdens on our resources, by demanding that faculty members take time away from students and teaching to do what amounts to busy work, and by lowering institutional standards for student performance. If the goal of institutional assessment is merely to distract external critics from their real demands, then the diversion appears to be working, at least for the time being. However, if we in academe honestly desire to be free of external control, we will eventually need to recognize and deal with the public's primary concern—the rising cost of higher education.

Her summary of the problems with outcomes assessment is compelling. Peter Wood's 2009 evaluation of the movement reached similar conclusions.

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