Assessment and Outcomes

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Focus on Student Learning

As the assessment and accountability movements in higher education have converged on student learning as the center of the educational universe, ideas about what constitutes a high-quality education have shifted from the traditional view of what teachers provide to a practical concern for what learners actually learn, achieve, and become.

In the traditional "teacher-centered" model, the focus has been on inputs: the credentials of faculty, the topics to be presented, the sequencing of presentations, and so forth.

Oddly, even though college teachers are expected to be good teachers, they are not required to have had any formal training in teaching and learning; expertise in their disciplines is somehow generally considered adequate preparation for a career in college teaching. In addition, even though faculty are almost universally very much interested in promoting student learning, traditional program organization takes for granted the teacher-centered view of teaching and learning. Faculty "teach," generally in the ways that worked best for them as students, and students are at liberty (or their peril) to learn what they can. Although this system has worked fairly well for a long time, research over the last thirty years suggests that we can do much better.

In the "student-centered," or "learner-centered" model, the focus is on outputs: what knowledge have students actually acquired, and what abilities have they actually developed? Implicit in the student-centered model is the idea that instructors are facilitators of learning. It is not enough to construct a syllabus and present information; the job of instructors now involves creating and sustaining an effective learning environment based on a wide range of "best practices" in teaching and learning. The fundamental role of assessment is to provide a complementary methodology for monitoring, confirming, and improving student learning.

The "paradigm shift" from a teacher-centered program design to a learner-centered program design is well underway nationwide, and has already been widely adopted by accrediting agencies, with many important implications.

First, student-centered programs are output- oriented. The primary measure of program success is what graduates actually know and are able to do.

Second, student-centered programs are competency-based. Learning objectives and learning outcomes are tied to the most important skills and knowledge in a program.

Third, learner-centered education is dedicated to continual improvement through ongoing assessment of student learning. By monitoring the effects of program changes on learning outcomes, program faculty are enabled to identify problem areas and to design improvements.

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