Peer Review

From the Director

The higher education community continues to engage in efforts to effectively communicate among colleagues and with audiences outside the academy about what students are learning in college and the value of a college degree. Calls for greater accountability for student learning have focused, however, on the simplest of indicators related to student success, e.g. retention and graduation rates. It is important that students who come to higher education remain and successfully complete their studies, of course. However, it is even more important that our students actually learn what we have determined is critical and that they do so at a high level of quality. To date, the emphasis from policy makers and many higher education leaders has been to rely on standardized test scores as proxy measures for quality student learning on our campuses.

Given that most campuses using the leading standardized tests rely upon only a sample of students entering and leaving our institutions, the results of these tests give only a snapshot of learning on a limited set of outcomes at two points in time; and the scores are of little use (and often not reported) to students or faculty. It is surprising, then, that so much attention and reliance is being placed on this thin wire. Significantly, little information from these test results is being used by students or faculty to guide pedagogical and curricular improvements and enhance the quality of teaching and learning. This is a weak strategy.

The Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education project (VALUE) is a national project of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ Liberal Education and America’s Promise (LEAP) initiative that is exploring the possibility of an alternative approach to assessing learning. VALUE is developing an alternative that can provide the types of information that students can use to develop their own abilities to self-assess their learning and to reflect on their progress. It can inform faculty about what areas of learning, assignments, and pedagogies are effective. And, finally, it can provide a basis for programs, departments, and institutions to showcase student learning.

VALUE builds on the existing work of faculty and others on our campuses to develop rubrics—statements of expected learning—for a broad range of essential learning outcomes. Faculty teams from over forty institutions have developed the rubrics for a set of essential learning outcomes drawn from LEAP, including those that have typically been unexamined because they appeared to be too ineffable to assess. We are documenting the shared expectations around student learning among faculty and student-affairs professionals and across different types of institutions. These shared core criteria for learning provide a foundation for national conversations about quality learning and how our students’ work demonstrates this quality.

The articles in this issue show how VALUE can work. They present a promising approach to assessing student learning in its rich and robust fullness that provides faculty with information they can use to improve teaching; provides students with expectations for learning at progressively more complex levels of performance; builds from the work that faculty and students engage with through the curriculum and cocurriculum on our campuses; and allows programs and institutions to report aggregate findings of learning gains to internal and external audiences on the broad array of outcomes associated with the global and complex world in which we live.

More than seventy campuses across the country have pilot tested the rubrics with their students’ work through e-portfolio collections or with traditional paper assignments and artifacts to determine the reliability and validity of the rubrics in assessing student learning. Through the feedback from the pilot assessments, faculty teams have revised the rubrics to enhance their clarity, usefulness, and utility. In a soon-to-be-released AAC&U survey of its members, a strong majority are already using e-portfolios, in some form, and more are exploring the feasibility of using them (see figure below).

VALUE is not the only answer to the assessment and accountability challenge, but it is a promising alternative that is needed to redirect the focus of the national conversation toward student learning based on authentic evidence.

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