academic assessment

Why academic assessment is poised for a scientific revolution

Learn how the University of Central Oklahoma is redefining higher education

In 1906, Englishman J. J. Thompson challenged the scientific community’s understanding of the atom with his “plum pudding” theory. The model ultimately led to scientific evidence of the first subatomic particle, the electron. Thompson and subsequent pioneers of subatomic theory proved a powerful point: changing the unit of measurement can radically alter how we engage with the natural world.

Contrast this scientific revolution with our experience in the dynamic and changing world of higher education. For too long, higher education has relied on 19th-century definitions and measures to solve for 21st-century needs. The yardstick of academic progress—the transcript—has been the instrument to measure all learning that takes place during a student’s journey.

Students, families, and employers have serious doubts about the value of higher education—doubts that may be well-founded. Far too many students are exiting higher learning without the skills employers and society demand. One survey found that 87 percent of recent graduates felt well-prepared for jobs and careers after earning their diplomas, but only half of hiring managers agreed with them.

Is measurement helping to solve that problem—or contributing to it? It’s past time that higher education probes the question of whether we’re using the right definitions—and measures—of student success.

Consider academia’s approach to measurement: Academic transcripts can depict students’ achievements within courses and majors, but they often overlook opportunities to track and validate their growth across courses and fields, where critical interdisciplinary skills are forged. If we are to close looming gaps in our workforce, postsecondary leaders must embrace a shift that measures learning in a more holistic and granular fashion.

5 ways the University of Central Oklahoma is modernizing higher ed
The first step in this shift is embracing a unit of measurement that is both more precise and more comprehensive, as well as being evidence-based. Here’s how we’re already doing that at the University of Central Oklahoma (UCO).

1. New measures of learning. At UCO, we have attempted a different approach through a program called the Student Transformative Learning Record (STLR). The program awards badges based on the Association of American Colleges & Universities’ VALUE Rubrics to assess student progress in five different multi-disciplinary areas; the application of skills and competencies happens not just in a single course but across the learning experience.

(Next page: How UCO is transforming higher ed)

UCO is in its fourth year of learning record implementation and we’ve begun embedding this badging process with each new incoming class. By May 2019, our graduating seniors will have a learning record that has followed them from matriculation through graduation.

2. Reward achievement early and often. The unintended consequence of traditional higher-education assessment approaches is that students experience a sort of “delayed gratification” in terms of academic achievement. By more frequently assessing and certifying students’ skills, we’re starting to create a whole new unit of learning measurement. We’ve begun embedding these badging opportunities in at least one assignment in every class. The activity results in an authentic learning record, validated by faculty assessments and collected in a student’s e-portfolio.

3. Recognize learning—whenever and wherever it happens. The most valuable undergraduate learning happens when students apply competencies across disciplines, not just in a single course. As a result, we need new measures for today’s students and the new educational pathways they are pursuing. Our students can earn badges through participation or leadership of extracurricular events and student affairs activities, such as organizing a language or cultural event.

Students can track their progress via a mobile app as their portfolios develop, and then use their portfolios to apply for internships and awards. They can present their portfolios along with their academic transcripts when seeking employment or graduate-school placement. Students who unlock the transformation-level achievement in one or more beyond-disciplinary areas receive honors recognition at our graduation ceremonies.

4. Put students in control of their own academic development. Ideally, students should plan their academic curriculum in service of learning the content of their major. But what about the life skills they need to learn through their college curriculum? Using “snapshots” of academic and beyond-disciplinary progress along with e-portfolios, schools like ours can enable students to view their learning and development as an incremental process whereby they begin to see themselves as citizens, leaders, and creators—instead of mere consumers of content. UCO students can now apply their learning experiences across disciplines as they seek on-campus internships, positions, and awards.

5. Measure outcomes from the ground up. Part of the power of this new learning record is that we can build from the ground up to measure outcomes. Our partner, Civitas Learning, helped us understand how and why our new initiative supports student success. The analysis helped us measure program impact and discover the students who would benefit the most from the intervention, which gave us the evidence we needed to build support for the initiative.

Through this approach, students who had the embedded assessment experienced significant improvements in GPA and retention. A mere 1 percent year-to-year retention improvement across the student body recoups around $1.3 million in otherwise lost tuition and fees revenue, which is far more than the cost of implementing the program. We are now within striking distance of eliminating achievement gaps among low-income, first generation, and minority students who entered the university as full-time, first-year students.

The need for more precise measures of student learning is pushing us to rethink long-held assumptions about instruction, assessment, and course-level and co-curricular learning. As we implement these new strategies, a revolutionary perspective on how to track and recognize student growth is coming into view. If your only measurement tool is a scale, the only thing you can measure is weight. Academe’s Student Success Measurement Toolkit has for too long contained too few tools to measure important attributes of our students’ development.

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