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Toward Learner-Centered Higher Education: Why Faculty-Led Assessment is the Key

Jamie P. Merisotis, President & CEO, Lumina Foundation
Keynote Speech, National Assessment Conference, Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas

Thank you, and good morning, everyone. I’m honored to be part of this event because it gives me a chance to speak directly with the dedicated professionals who work, every day, with those who matter most in higher education: students. The work you are doing on behalf of those students ― that is, assessing their learning to ensure educational quality ― that is at the crux of our own work at Lumina Foundation.

If you’re at all familiar with Lumina, you know that we organize all of our work around a single, ambitious college-attainment goal ― what we call Goal 2025. By the year 2025, we want 60 percent of Americans to hold a college degree, certificate or other high-quality postsecondary credential.

Certainly, there’s no need for me to convince anyone here of the value in boosting college attainment. We’re all aware of the transformative power of higher education and of the enormous benefits it affords—to individuals, to families, to regional and state economies, to a more equitable society, and to the strength and stability of our democracy. We also know that, in this increasingly complex and interconnected world, college-level learning is vital for anyone who hopes to maintain a middle-class lifestyle. Experts say that, by the end of this decade, nearly two-thirds of jobs will require some type of postsecondary credential. That means a 60 percent attainment rate isn’t just a good goal … it’s a national necessity.

And make no mistake; this is not just a numbers game. Yes, as a nation, we need millions more of our citizens to hold degrees and other postsecondary credentials. But we dare not lose sight of exactly what it is they wind up holding. We must ensure that credentials have real and lasting value … that they demonstrate genuine talent … that truly reflect the knowledge and skills students need to succeed.

The only measure of educational quality that matters is learning.

That’s what we’re talking about in that second part of Goal 2025, the reference to “high-quality” credentials. And for us, the long-used proxies for quality in higher education—seat time, faculty profile, institutional reputation, tradition, even endowment size ― all of these indicators are insufficient, even invalid. What really matters—fundamentally, the only measure of educational quality that matters ― is learning; that is, what students know, and what they can do with what they know.

Of course, as assessment experts, you made this connection long ago. You know better than anyone that any viable definition of quality must be firmly rooted in results, in specific learning outcomes. And others are making this connection as well. Employers, researchers, labor experts, policymakers … more and more people from many quarters say that what we’ve been doing to validate learning and award credits and degrees isn’t working as well as it should.

In recent surveys, CEOs and other business leaders say it’s increasingly difficult to find workers with the high-level skills the modern workplace demands. Citing evidence of grade inflation, researchers claim the nation’s college students are “academically adrift.” Policymakers in virtually every state are pushing harder than ever for accountability and for a demonstrable return on the investment of public funds. Argue over the details if you must, but the main points are unassailable: We are producing too few graduates overall—particularly among the growing populations of underserved students ― and too many of those who do finish lack the skills, knowledge and capacities they need.

there is growing acceptance of learning obtained outside the classroom

Certainly, the higher education community is responding to this challenge. For instance, there is growing acceptance of learning obtained outside the classroom—in part because the methods for assessing this prior learning are becoming increasingly effective. In addition, many new competency-based approaches are being pioneered nationally ― by Southern New Hampshire University, Brandman University, the University of Wisconsin System, and Western Governors University, to name just a few.

Other sectors beyond higher-ed are responding to the challenge, as well. Industry groups are stepping up efforts to offer or refine their own methods for assessing and certifying students’ learning and fitness for jobs. This is happening in the energy sector, in advanced manufacturing, in logistics—really, in almost every industry where blue collars are being supplanted by white lab coats.

All of these trends underscore an important message that is echoing through the halls of higher education: We need new and better ways to measure and assess learning ― ways that are more responsive to current needs, more consistent, more transparent and clearly understood by all.

I know you have heard these calls and that you understand this need for change. That’s probably why you’re all here: to hone your ability to assess students’ learning in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing environment. Your presence here … your commitment to meeting this need … bodes very well for students and for society.

That’s because, in my view, there is no better way for these changes to be forged and implemented than under your leadership. As faculty members and assessment experts, you’re in the critical position to help higher education make the all-important shift to a learning-based system. You, better than anyone, know how students learn and how to best measure that learning. Perhaps even more important, you know how to ensure that learning combines academic rigor with workplace relevance—that a program’s value extends beyond classrooms and into careers … into lives.

Lumina Foundation has a deep respect for and, we hope, a growing understanding of the faculty’s critical, central role in ensuring educational quality. In fact, the concept of faculty-driven change is the centerpiece of our most visible effort in this area: the Degree Qualifications Profile.

The DQP ― a baseline set of reference points for what students should know and be able to do at the associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree levels—was released in beta form in 2011. Since then, it has gained significant traction nationwide as a tool that can help redefine educational quality in terms of actual student learning. So far, the DQP has been faculty-tested in more than 400 institutions across the country. A newly revised version just came out last month, and it’s available for further testing and comment at our website. Work is now under way to further refine the DQP ― including the important step of incorporating postsecondary certificates into the framework. I urge you to review the DQP, to test it and use it on your campus, and to give us your feedback as we strive to improve it.

As you explore the DQP, you’ll see clear evidence that we’re laser-focused on quality … that we’re not in any way seeking to lower standards or “dumb things down” just to increase degree-attainment rates.

In fact, the very opposite is true. The DQP’s rich and well-considered learning outcomes show very clearly that quality ― that fostering genuine learning—is very much the goal.

In fact, if I may, let me cite just three of the nearly 80 learning outcome statements you’ll find in the DQP:

In the category of “Civic and Global Learning,” for example, the DQP says the bachelor’s-level student must be able to (quoting here): “Develop and justify a position on a public issue and relate this position to alternate views within the community or policy environment.”

Next, to demonstrate “Communicative fluency,” a bachelor’s-level student must “Negotiate with one or more collaborators to advance an oral argument or articulate an approach to resolving a social, personal or ethical dilemma.”

Finally, to prove “Quantitative fluency,” a bachelor’s candidate must: “Construct mathematical expressions for complex issues most often described in non-quantitative terms.”

As you can see, the learning outcomes described here are clear and concrete, but they’re anything but simplistic. They can’t be demonstrated by any simple standardized test. In fact, they’re the absolute antithesis of that approach. Indeed, they can only be demonstrated through well-designed assignments and assessments … assignments and assessments that can only be crafted by experienced and thoughtful educators.

These outcome statements ― and the entirety of the document—show the DQP’s commitment to defining and measuring the high-level, integrated learning that is vital to today’s students. It calls for knowledge that is both broad and specialized; for critical thinking; for ethical reasoning, for civic and global awareness. In short, it encompasses all of the things that students need to succeed ― in the workplace and as an engaged citizen in our democracy.

As you consider the DQP, I’d also direct your attention to a paper by one of its four co-authors, Peter Ewell of NCHEMS. That paper, published last year by the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, is especially relevant, because it focuses on the DQP’s implications for assessment.

Peter’s paper does a wonderful job of explaining the DQP and the thinking behind it. And it can help make the most of this tool as you apply it to your own work. I commend it to all of you. I won’t take time today to unpack the paper’s content, but I will direct you to one sentence that is particularly relevant. “The DQP asks faculty members to examine the entire instructional process from the inside out ― starting from the perspective of learners and what they learn instead of the perspective of teachers and what they teach.”

Peter’s statement—much like the DQP itself ― distills a wealth of thought and carries huge implications for all of us. It highlights two very important points. If I may, I’d like to examine each of those points more fully in the time I have left with you today.

The first point is that of perspective … the idea that the instructional process must begin and end with students ― with “learners and what they learn.” This idea—of shifting the focus away from an institution-centric construct and toward understanding and meeting the needs of students—is absolutely central. This concept must be the central driver in the effort to redesign higher education for the 21st century. Indeed, fundamental redesign is a must—because the traditional higher-ed model is simply insufficient to our needs as a society. That’s not a criticism of any institution, individual or mindset. The fact is, the current system lacks the capacity and the flexibility to properly serve the millions of additional students who must be served if we are to meet the nation’s attainment goals.

Clearly, we need a revamped system: One that puts students firmly at the center by building it around pathways based on learning … one that challenges everyone to be accountable for the success of students … all types of students, in greater numbers than ever before, especially those who have traditionally been underrepresented in higher education—low-income students, first-generation college attenders, minorities, and adults. We need a system that requires transparency and cooperative effort, one that encourages innovation by rewarding actual outcomes, not mere process or effort or good intentions.

Certainly, a great deal of work needs to be done in the coming years to flesh out the details of this student-centered system of higher education. But the basic outline of this new system is already taking shape. For example, we know that, at its core, the system must offer multiple, clearly marked pathways to various levels of student success ― learning pathways that are affordable, clear and interconnected, with no dead ends, no cul-de-sacs and plenty of on- and off-ramps.

We also know that these pathways must be built on the foundation of learning. Degrees and other postsecondary credentials can’t simply be defined by the amount of time a student spends in classrooms or labs. Rather, degrees must represent well-defined and transparent learning outcomes. Students should get credit for what they know and what they can do, and all learning should count ― no matter how, when or where it was obtained.

When fully fleshed out, this new system will be one in which every student knows where he or she is going, how much it will cost to get there, how much time it will take, and what to expect at journey’s end—both in terms of learning outcomes and career prospects.

Again, the development of this student-centered system isn’t just an option. It’s an imperative, driven by the national necessity to educate millions more Americans ― particularly the emerging majority of 21st century students, including working adults, low-income, minority and first-generation students.

I mentioned earlier the growing number of institutions taking a competency-based approach to the development of this student-centered system. These institutions use the transformative power of technology to develop rigorous, demanding and learning-focused programs of study. In many ways they represent a sea change in the way postsecondary learning is delivered, and there’s some evidence that they have the capacity to scale quickly.

Beyond the DQP and the approaches taken through things like competency-based delivery, it’s important to consider the sometimes-misunderstood role of transfer in this learner-centered system. Think about how much the system has changed in the professional lifetimes of many of us in this room. Not only has the demographic profile of the student population changed significantly, so too have the pathways through which students get their degrees. Today, nearly three-quarters of students who earn a degree attend more than one institution. It will be essential for all of us—faculty, administrators, external partners—to deliberately partner with other institutions to provide seamless and articulated transfer pathways based on assessed student learning. Efforts like AAC&U’s Quality Collaboratives project are demonstrating the powerful benefits of focusing attention on assessment-based transfer.

I can’t conclude my remarks without mentioning several other important resources, many or all of which may be quite familiar to you.  We know that CLEP is being increasingly used to assess general education learning outcomes, and several others are following suit.  We’ve seen tremendous progress in portfolio assessment being done by groups such as the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL).  There has been an uptick in assessment of corporate and military training by the National College Credit Recommendation Service and the American Council on Education.  And the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) is developing an online library of assignments developed by faculty from around the country to support competency-based assessment.

All of these resources and examples rest on the bedrock principle of student-centeredness … of focusing first on “learners and what they learn,” as that quote from Peter Ewell suggests. But let me end with an observation about the second part of Peter’s statement. He specifically charges faculty members with the task of changing the instructional process. Ewell indicates ― quite clearly—that this change effort cannot and should not be imposed from above or from the outside. For positive change to occur, and for it to endure, it must be made “from the inside out.”

At Lumina, we couldn’t agree more. We’re convinced that change—that fundamental redesign in higher education ― is a necessity. And we’re just as convinced that faculty must embrace that change, and lead it.

Your talent and experience in assessing student learning are vital to the development and continuous improvement of the redesigned higher-ed system. Your ongoing use and refinement of various frameworks and rubrics, you efforts at information sharing and cross-sector collaboration that occur at events such as this conference, your continuous efforts to find ways to use technology to improve student learning—all of this is important and fruitful.

And the work you do in your classrooms and offices every day … forging the learning experiences and the assessment methods that most benefit your students … that work is truly transformative. What you do truly changes students’ lives.

And now, what you do can also help transform higher education writ large—at a time when transformation is absolutely vital. Seize that opportunity, to help realize a new vision for a 21st century system, one that is student-centered, learning-based, and fully committed to quality.

Tracy Chen
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
Lumina Foundation: Working to ensure a quality education for all Americans
August 8, 2019

Lumina Foundation is an independent, private foundation in the United States that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.