Diversity and Democracy

From the Editor: Assessing Students' Diversity, Global, and Civic Learning Gains

“What do we know about students’ learning, and how do we know it?” Presenting this question fifteen years ago to an audience of college and university educators, K. Patricia Cross expressed concern about an apparent disconnect between the burgeoning field of higher education research and the practice of teaching. In Cross’s estimation, higher education research often yielded generalizable findings that, while useful, were most applicable when combined with the personalized knowledge that comes from interacting with individual students. And yet, Cross observed, such connections between the general and the particular were all too rare. “At present,” she noted, “I think we are prone to consider research findings as the conclusion of our investigations into learning. We might do better to think of them as the start of our investigations” (2005, 12).

Replace the word “research” in the previous sentence with the word “assessment,” and an equally valid point emerges. Indeed, the current burst of interest in assessment practices is arguably driven by the need to answer questions similar to the one that anchored Cross’s 1998 address. What do we know about student learning, and how do we know it? Many assessment approaches, from tests to surveys to rubrics, are designed to answer that question as it relates to student learning outcomes. When interpreted carefully, evidence of these outcomes, gathered directly from student work or indirectly from students’ self-reports, tells a story about effective teaching and effectual learning. But this story, like the research Cross references, does not and should not conclude neatly. Instead, it should initiate a process to improve higher education and ensure that graduates have the skills, knowledge, and capacities they need to succeed in and contribute to a twenty-first-century world.

In many cases, the skills, knowledge, and capacities students need call for opportunities to engage in civic, global, and intercultural learning. Indeed, in its list of Essential Learning Outcomes, the Association of American Colleges and Universities specifically names civic knowledge and engagement—local and global—and intercultural knowledge and competence as necessary for today’s students (Association of American Colleges and Universities 2013). But what do we know about students’ learning in these areas, and how do we know it? Are students who engage in civic, global, and intercultural learning opportunities actually achieving the intended outcomes? What is the evidence of that achievement? And what does that evidence tell us about the learning process and about how we can best improve it?

This issue of Diversity & Democracy offers a pathway toward engaging with these questions in the realms of civic learning and democratic engagement, global learning, and engagement with diversity. Contributing authors describe different approaches to assessing learning in these areas. Some offer ways to gather authentic evidence of student learning through real engagement with students and their work. Others share what the evidence they have collected has shown about specific educational environments or pedagogical approaches and their effects on student learning. Still others argue for holistic models of assessment that link institutional structures with student learning, or community outcomes with learning outcomes. Whether sharing their own assessment processes or presenting research findings, these authors invite readers to apply lessons learned and bridge the general and particular as they launch and refine their own assessment practices.

To conclude this introduction with another variation on Cross’s provocative question: Why do we assess what we assess about student learning? The answers certainly vary. Many undertake assessments in response to external pressures for accountability, to demonstrate the value of their work to students, parents, administrators, colleagues, or national and international stakeholders. This motivation is certainly valid, especially in the contested realms of civic, global, and diversity work. But in an ideal world, assessment approaches not only provide necessary evidence of effectiveness, but also offer a basis for beginning a new cycle of improvement to advance teaching and learning—a cycle designed to support students’ ability to contribute to and thrive in a democratic society and a diverse and interconnected world.


Association of American Colleges and Universities. 2013. “Big Questions, Urgent Challenges: Liberal Education and Americans’ Global Future.” Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Cross, K. Patricia. 2005. “What Do We Know About Students’ Learning and How Do We Know It?” Center for Studies in Higher Education Research and Occasional Paper Series (CSHE.7.05). Based on an address delivered at the AAHE National Conference on Higher Education, Atlanta, Georgia, March 24, 1998. Berkeley, CA: University of California, Berkeley. http://cshe.berkeley.edu/publications/docs/ROP.Cross.7.05.pdf.

Kathryn Peltier Campbell is editor of Diversity & Democracy.

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