Three Questions about Learning and Quality

By December 6, 2012 March 7th, 2019 Trusteeship Article

In an attempt to evaluate the quality of learning that goes on in colleges and universities, some organizations have pursued questionable approaches—for instance, assigning a letter grade of A through F to institutions based on “core” subjects like composition, literature, foreign language, history, mathematics, and so on. Should trustees take ratings like this seriously? In a word: No. Such models for a core curriculum are outdated; they are too focused on the broad general survey course and a couple of skills courses (writing, math), and far too myopic when it comes to the high-quality liberal education students need for a challenging global century.

Board members can and should ask for information about required learning on their campuses—the standards that students meet in order to earn their degrees. But trustees’ questions and educational oversight must go way beyond a small set of required core courses.

Working with over 1,000 colleges, universities, and community colleges, and with scholars, employers, and several state systems, the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) has identified a set of learning aims and outcomes that are essential for today’s students. (See box below.) In this context, here are three questions that boards should ask about the quality of their educational programs:

1. How strong are your expected learning outcomes?

Have your faculty members identified a broad set of learning goals or outcomes that all students are expected to achieve? Do those goals touch the full array of learning areas that AAC&U has outlined: (a) broad knowledge—of science, cultures, histories, languages, and societies; (b) 21st-century intellectual skills that students need both for work and citizenship; (c) personal and social responsibility—developed and demonstrated by working on global, civic, ethical, and real-world issues; (d) integrative and applied learning—the capacity to apply one’s learning to new contexts and complex problems?

2. Is your curriculum aligned?

If your campus does have learning goals—and today, most do—have the departments been asked to map these goals across their own curricular and assessment requirements? Too many campuses apply their goals only to general education programs. A strong design for quality expects majors and general courses to work together so that students have many opportunities to acquire and demonstrate deep, integrated knowledge and strong analytical, communication, and problem-solving skills.

3. Do you have cornerstone, milestone, and cumulative assessments?

Whatever their major, all students should be expected to show how well they are cumulatively achieving the knowledge, skills, and proactive responsibilities they will need for long-term success. General education should include advanced courses and assignments where students apply their learning to big questions—both contemporary and enduring—that require insights from many disciplines. Majors should require students to show how well they can integrate knowledge, skills, and civic or ethical perspectives in tackling complex problems. General education and majors together should require students to connect their studies to global challenges and developments. Programs should report on outcomes and focus on needed improvements.

Clear aims, an intentional curriculum, milestone and cumulative assessments: These are the “big three” for any campus seriously committed to high-quality learning and the larger meanings of student success.

Essential Learning Outcomes

Beginning in school, and continuing at successively higher levels across their college studies, students should prepare for 21st-century challenges by gaining:

Knowledge of Human Cultures and the Physical and Natural World

  • Through study in the sciences and mathematics, social sciences, humanities, histories, languages, and the arts.

Focused by engagement with big questions, both contemporary and enduring

Intellectual and Practical Skills, including

  • Inquiry and analysis
  • Critical and creative thinking
  • Written and oral communication
  • Quantitative literacy
  • Information literacy
  • Teamwork and problem solving

Practiced extensively, across the curriculum, in the context of progressively more challenging problems, projects, and standards for performance

Personal and Social Responsibility, including

  • Civic knowledge and engagement—local and global
  • Intercultural knowledge and competence
  • Ethical reasoning and action
  • Foundations and skills for lifelong learning

Anchored through active involvement with diverse communities and real-world challenges

Integrative and Applied Learning, including

  • Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across general and specialized studies

Demonstrated through the application of knowledge, skills, and responsibilities to new settings and complex problems

Source: Association of American Colleges and Universities, “College Learning for the New Global Century: A Report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education and America’s Promise” (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities).