What Does the Improvement of Student Learning Really Mean?

And How Is It Related to Student Learning Outcomes?

 Assessment & SLOs by Deanna Davis
The focus of what has been called variously the accountability movement, outcomes-based assessment,  student learning outcomes assessment, and student success is actually the same:  a renewed and documentable emphasis on the improvement of student learning.  
Everyone - parents, communities, legislators, employers, regional accrediting associations - are demanding that schools take active steps to bring students to higher levels of educational achievement, and they want more information about how we do it and how we claim to prove it.  
Efforts on the federal level have tended to emphasize standardized testing because it is the easiest way for a huge bureaucracy to respond to the call for documentation of the improvement of student learning, but most teachers feel that standardized testing is not the best way to approach the problem.  Instead, teachers want to and need to respond to this call by improving their classroom instruction and assessment practices.  
While it may seem that the documentation part of what is being asked of us will be harder to achieve this way, it is possible to focus our efforts on better instruction and assessment in the classroom and still produce what our regional accrediting association has called “a culture of evidence.” Part of this evidence is simply a record of documents used during the efforts to improve our instruction and assessment practices. This web page will serve as part of this record.  
How is this “culture of evidence” related to Student Learning Outcomes and their assessment?  There have been many misperceptions about Student Learning Outcomes since the term was introduced by our regional accrediting association in 2002.  At worst, they have been seen as bureaucratic statements formatted to fit a template that will satisfy outside agencies, without any relevance to the teaching and learning that is actually going on inside the classroom.  This view of Student Learning Outcomes does not provide much potential to improve student learning.  
However, to think of Student Learning Outcomes as an instructor’s or department’s articulation of the most important learning that is taking place in the course or program does provide for many opportunities to improve student learning.
First, articulating the most important learning as Student Learning Outcomes makes it easier for the instructor or department to judge whether the assessment tools are appropriate and valid.  
Second, publishing the Student Learning Outcomes on the course syllabus and referring to them frequently in assignments and lectures helps the students to stay on track and to focus more sharply their self-assessment and self-improvement efforts on the areas where they are most needed.  Research has shown that these efforts produce more responsible and independent learners.
And lastly, Student Learning Outcomes do facilitate the production of documents that can serve to enrich our “culture of evidence” that students are learning.  But remember that these documents will differ in format, sometimes dramatically, depending on the kind of assessment tools that are used to produce the evidence.  When objective tests that produce numerical scores are the primary means of assessment, the evidence will take the form of statistical data.  When performance and portfolio assessments are used, the evidence will take other forms, such as videotapes, student reflective writing, evaluation sheets with evaluative criteria included, and physical products such as the portfolios and projects themselves.  Many formative assessment tools such as pre- and post-assessment pairings, quizzes and learning logs, and student self-assessment metaphors can also be used to show evidence of student learning. In fact, one of the most promising frontiers in the new regions of assessment practices is the inclusion of students as active participants in the assessment of their learning.  According to this approach, assessment isn’t something that happens to learners after they have stopped learning but rather a continual part of the learning process that makes them more engaged in their learning.
This page provides resources to help our college fulfill the call to improve student learning.
Are Multiple Choice Tests An Effective Way to Measure Student Learning?
A summary of the views of W. James Popham on the issue of multiple choice testing.
The ABCs of Assessment: Improving Student Learning Through Classroom Assessment
This is the slide presentation used for the Flex workshop by the same name given during Flex Week, August, 2007.  Learn how a focus on outcomes assessment has led to some promising new directions in classroom assessment practices and approaches.
Using Assessment to Improve Student Learning
This is the slide presentation used for the Flex workshop by the same name given during Flex Week, August, 2007.  Formative assessment practices and approaches are being singled out by researchers for having the highest potential to improve student learning.  This presentation provides both an explanation of what formative assessment is and why it is so beneficial and concrete examples of simple techniques and tools you can start using in your classroom now.
Beyond Multiple Choice:  Performance and Portfolio Assessments
This is the slide presentation used for the Flex workshop by the same name given during Flex Week, August, 2007.  It explains the advantages of performance and portfolio assessments and some important issues you need to think about when using them.