Measuring Up

Our goals are so complex that learning outcomes assessment will measure only a small part of what takes place while our students are with us.

—Wendy Newby, Assistant Dean of Undergraduate Education, Emory College, and Director of Faculty Resources for Inclusive Instruction

Vol. 10 No. 2
October/November 2007

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Measuring Up
Quantifying the quality of an Emory education

Selected Results from the National Survey of Student Engagement

“Our goals are so complex that learning outcomes assessment will measure only a small part of what takes place while our students are with us.”

“I think it’s important for students to know a lot of facts [and] figures. . . . If you haven’t acquired that basic, empirical knowledge, the structure of reflection you build upon collapses.”

The New Curriculum
Medical student education in the twenty-first century

The Transforming Community Project

Practicing Diversity in the Academy
Uncovering and engaging Emory’s racial past and present

Uncovering the Past, Looking to the Future
Experiencing a community dialogue at Emory


Academic Exchange: What does learning outcomes assessment mean to you?

Wendy Newby: Many people in the academy resist or fear assessment, but it can become an opportunity to re-evaluate and set clear goals for our purposes as educators. We are experiencing many changes at Emory, including striking changes in our student body, which is increasingly extraordinary and diverse. Many students in my freshman advising group are entering as second-term freshmen or even sophomores. They consider themselves to be ready to choose majors because they have been awarded credit for many general education requirements. Faculty discussions of learning outcomes assessment should lead to lively interchanges on how to shape the students we touch and how we might prepare them for the world they will enter. What can our liberal arts education offer these highly accomplished individuals? How can it enrich their lives? What are the tools that the next generation will need, and how do we teach those effectively? Some in the academy have chosen to use standardized assessment tools that measure particular components: writing, reading, or research skills. All of those are important, but I would prefer to see each department or program develop a capstone activity that incorporates the skills embedded in the rich disciplinary and interdisciplinary experiences of our college curricula. Each learning outcomes assessment would be unique to each division.

Learning outcomes assessment might also allow us to address some areas that have gone unnoticed until recently. Emory has not thought of itself as a setting where students need remediation. And yet our retention rate in the college is somewhat lower than peer institutions. The retention committee appointed by [Emory College] Dean Bobby Paul and led by Dean Tom Lancaster is examining why this is true. One direction to look is at resources for faculty and students that will directly affect learning outcomes. Our emphasis has been on teaching so far and not on learning. I hope that our plans to develop a center for faculty that incorporates teaching and learning will come to pass. We need it now more than ever.

AE: How is learning outcomes assessment different from the existing required coursework and exams?

WN: Coursework and exams are essential structures for learning.
It would be helpful, though, for the object of the learning experience to be defined and contextualized, so that if the question is asked, Why is this an essential part of your curriculum?, faculty can explain the value of each activity within the whole of the curriculum they have established. It is not uncommon for there to be gaps in the overall learning experience. One example was shared at a recent conference on learning assessment. When faculty at another institution examined the curriculum, they found they were not teaching a course in ethics for their science majors, something they felt was very important. Their assessment led to an essential change.

AE: What’s the next step?

WN: Right now I think we need to enter into a community discussion, and it needs to start at the departmental level. The SACS review is in 2014. This gives us a wonderful opportunity to plan ahead. Ideally, there will be a center for teaching and learning staffed by professionals who can help us examine both curricula and instructional practices with faculty. Not a large professional force, but experienced professionals who could facilitate discussions of what we could do better. In the meantime, we need to develop a core of interested faculty who will lead such discussions.

I believe we could benefit from further definition of what we want our students to learn and to become. Some of this has been described in our strategic plan, but those are aspirational goals, and we need to determine how they can be put into practice. Many of the outcomes of the educational experiences of our students are recognizable to those of us who trace their progress, but not measurable, such as emotional growth and personal development. Our goals are so complex that learning outcomes assessment will measure only a small part of what takes place while our students are with us. But a discussion of learning outcomes and their assessment by departments, by programs, and ultimately by the college together will provide us with a better sense of our mutual purpose and how to achieve it. That would be the best possible outcome.