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Assessing academic outcomes for the good of our students

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A. Sue Weisler

Anne Wahl is director of RIT’s Student Learning Outcomes Assessment Office.

Is there anything more important to higher 
education than student learning and academic quality? When I arrived at RIT five years ago 
and began working with faculty across the 
campus, I still remember how refreshing and 
inspiring it was to discover their commitment 
to student learning. At that time, we didn’t 
always speak the same “language,” because 
the term “assessment” was somewhat puzzling to them as was the phrase “Frozen Four” to me. Our initial conversations focused on defining assessment and having in-depth conversations about improving student learning and how 
assessment data on student-learning outcomes can enrich and guide programs. 

RIT had pockets of assessment going on 
all over the campus, mostly in programs that 
enjoyed specialized accreditation. Helping 
faculty realize they were already practicing 
some remarkable performance-based and 
authentic assessment was important in those early conversations. Some programs didn’t 
always have formally written goals and 
outcomes mapped to courses and assignments with clear expected achievement benchmarks, but they could easily articulate the program’s vision and share anecdotal course information about assessing student learning. 

Semester conversion presented an oppor­tunity to have strategic discussions on the 
development of meaningful, manageable and sustainable assessment plans that included 
formally written goals, outcomes, measures 
and benchmarks. Generally, I find that most 
faculty discomfort is not about the actual assessment of student learning or using the evidence for ongoing program improvement, but rather the uneasiness with one-size-fits-all and compliance aspects of assessment. Different disciplines and outcomes naturally align to different 
approaches to inquiry and assessment practices.

In 2006, the Spellings Commission mandated that colleges and universities become more transparent about student success outcomes. 
The national conversation continues to intensify on the growing need for evidence that colleges and universities are assessing the quality of 
outcomes. According to the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) 2014 report, while the primary driver of assessment 
is still accrediting bodies, the majority of institutions are making the necessary shift to include more “internal drivers.” Colleges are taking steps to systematically document that we do assess student-learning outcomes and use data to 
guide planning, decisions and improvements. 

RIT is one of those universities. These are 
not only priorities at the program and college levels, but also with our Board of Trustees and university leadership. Our program goals and outcomes are aligned to RIT’s Essential Learning Outcomes and we have determined how to 
“roll up” data in a meaningful way to enable the provost, deans, department chairs and our Education Core Committee to focus on student learning achievement. 

Where are we headed in the next five years? By 2020, we hope to distinguish ourselves by steadily getting better at using our results to improve teaching and learning. There will be a cohesive and natural connection between curriculum, instruction and assessment that is second nature for faculty. We will be able to say with 
unwavering confidence that our graduates achieved the intended student learning outcomes that we committed to when they entered RIT. And most important, our campus community will realize that assessment is a means to an 
important end and not an end in and of itself. 

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A. Sue Weisler

Anne Wahl is director of RIT’s Student Learning Outcomes Assessment Office.