Volume IV: What works, what matters, what lasts

Assessing Student Achievement

November 7, 2006

Our education in America at the undergraduate level must be focused on preparing students for roles in a competitive environment in which qualities that cannot be off-shored are developed in our students. These include creativity, the ability to work effectively with others in one-on-one and in groups, and the ability to address complex issues from multiple perspectives. It is these skills that our educational system needs to be focusing on, and I regret to say they are not always subject to increased efficiency, nor to simple testing on a national basis. Instead, they require a recommitment in this country to the core principles of liberal education.

A liberal education has nothing to do with liberal or conservative political beliefs. Rather, “liberal” is used in the sense of “freeing”; the Latin term “artes liberales” can be translated as “the skills of freedom.” The types of skills we need to be teaching in our colleges and universities include practical skills such as critical mastery, written and oral communication, quantitative literacy, and problem-solving. We need to make sure our student develop a sense of personal and social responsibility, including civic engagement locally and globally, intercultural knowledge, and ethical reasoning. Finally, students need to learn how to address big questions from multiple points of view, and to collaborate with others to synthesize different perspectives. An education such as this will encourage creativity and enable students to move across areas to new problems and unfamiliar challenges. A liberal education, combined with deep knowledge and understanding of some particular field, is the best preparation for the world-scale competition we all face in the 21st century, and the best way to educate our citizens to play active roles in a democratic society.
   — David W. Oxtoby- President, Pomona College, from the Keynote Address at the 2006 ASA Conference

In past years, the National Science Foundation supported significant projects under the rubric, ‘assessing student achievement,' within the Division of Undergraduate Education's Course, Curriculum and Laboratory Improvement program. Collectively, the funded ASA projects, which cover all the STEM disciplines, have developed (and assessed) a wide-range of tools for assessing student learning and pedagogical effectiveness– from interactive multi-media exercises to assess and improve students' problem-solving skills (Clemson), to a critical thinking assessment test useable in many fields (Tennessee Institute of Technology), to building a basic biology concept inventory (University of Nebraska). As projects mature, they are being placed on two web sites for easy access to the increasing number of STEM faculty looking for tested tools to adapt in their own setting: OERL, The Online Evaluation Resource Library, and FLAG, the Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide.

Representatives of many of the ASA projects met recently in Washington DC, convened by the NSF-ASA team from Drury University. Proceedings from that meeting will be published next year.

This meeting was clear evidence that research on how people learn is having a significant impact on how faculty think about students, about how their students are learning and about what their students are learning. It was important to note both the variety of approaches to assessment and the shared visions relating to goals for student learning: developing depth of understanding in the field as well as the leadership skills (critical thinking, problem-solving, etc.) essential to having a productive, self-fulfilling life in our 21st century society.

Many questions are being raised on campuses and in public arenas about what it will take to improve the quality, effectiveness and efficiency of higher education in America in the near future. The experiences of this group of assessment pioneers can help to inform that discussion.

We present here reflections from ASA leaders about what every STEM faculty member should know about assessment of student learning.

We also direct your attention to the PKAL What Works statement on Linking Insights About How People Learn into Curricular Reform.