Outcomes & Assessment: Focus on Student Learning

Following is an excerpt of the WWU Tools & Techniques for Course Improvement. These documents have proven to be the most popular web pages on the CIIA's online collection of resources.

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.

Best Practices in Teaching and Learning

The increasing focus on student learning as the central indicator of institutional excellence challenges many tacit assumptions about the respective roles of college students and faculty. In student-centered education, faculty take on less responsibility for being sources of knowledge, and take on greater responsibility as facilitators of a broad range of learning experiences. For their part, students are called on to take on more responsibility for their own learning.

As shown in the following table, the responsibilities of students and faculty and the relationships between them are quite different in the two models:

Teacher-centered Learner-centered
Knowledge Transmitted from instructor Constructed by students
Student participation Passive Active
Role of professor Leader/authority Facilitator/partner in learning
Role of Assessment Few tests, mainly for grading Many tests, for ongoing feedback
Emphasis Learning correct answers Developing deeper understanding
Assessment method Unidimensional testing Multidimensional products
Academic culture Competitive, individualistic Collaborative, supportive

Beginning with Bloom's taxonomy for educational objectives, and continuing with considerable research on teaching and learning, over the last thirty years many detailed lists of "best practices in teaching" have been compiled. Most lists of important "best practices" include the following:

  • Engage students in active learning experiences
  • Set high, meaningful expectations
  • Provide, receive, and use regular, timely, and specific feedback
  • Become aware of values, beliefs, preconceptions; unlearn if necessary
  • Recognize and stretch student styles and developmental levels
  • Seek and present real-world applications
  • Understand and value criteria and methods for student assessment
  • Create opportunities for student-faculty interactions
  • Create opportunities for student-student interactions
  • Promote student involvement through engaged time and quality effort

See the rest of the online version on the CIIA's website.


See also: Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes (by College, Department, and Program).