Improving Institutional Effectiveness: The Relationship between Assessing Student Learning Outcomes and Strategic Planning in California Community Colleges

Article excerpt

Community colleges in California are grappling with developing and assessing student learning outcomes (SLOs), as the accrediting agency is holding them accountable for providing evidence of student learning as one measure of institutional effectiveness. One means of demonstrating accountability is to use strategic planning to direct the continuous improvement of SLOs through assessment and evaluation. A survey of 108 California community college chief instructional officers (CIOs) examined the relationship between strategic planning and assessing student learning. The response rate was 63 percent. These CIOs did not report a direct connection between strategic planning and assessing student learning as a means to fulfill institutional goals and improve institutional effectiveness. However, follow-up interviews with 12 of the 68 CIOs who responded to the survey indicated the existence of this relationship. Results from this article demonstrate the need for both quantitative and qualitative measures of the same issue to allow for multiple perspectives to arise.

Introduction

California community colleges (CCCs), with over 2.6 million students, are required to develop systems to demonstrate that students are learning. The struggle for CCCs is how to model and/ or remodel what happens in the classroom into a plan to improve student learning outcomes (SLOs) and how to assess whether the plan is improving learning and institutional effectiveness (IE). The expectation in this day and age is that not only should students possess certain skills but that they have the ability to identify and solve problems, to ascertain the impact of decisions and actions, and to appreciate that learning will be life long.

The beginning of the 21st century brought with it many changes in higher education, certainly for California community colleges. Aggressively capturing an advantage in the marketplace promotes the success of the institution through increased income and prestige. More importantly, the ability of the institution to effectively and efficiently educate and equip its students, faculty, and staff makes a crucial difference in the accomplishments of the college (Center for Student Success, 2007; Kirsch, Braun, Yamamoto «Sc Sum, 2007). The aforementioned comes with challenges.

Community colleges experience two unique challenges in planning for the improvement of their institutions. The first is that the students have varied education goals ranging from those who want to take one or two classes for personal interest, to those who want specialized vocational training and to those who are interested in transferring to a four-year college or university. The second challenge is the varied demographics of the students. The typical age range of the CCC student body is less than 29 years old (63 %) (see Table 1). That leaves 37 percent who are older than 29 years. The ethnicity of the student body state-wide is mostly White followed by Hispanic and Asian (see Table 2).

The CCCs also have the challenge of harnessing the resources, financial and human, necessary to efficiently and effectively facilitate learning within this vast array of needs, making planning for improvement particularly critical for community colleges.

Additionally, accrediting agencies are increasingly olding institutions accountable for providing improvement to their institutions, including evidence of student learning. The Accrediting Commission for Community and Junior Colleges (ACCJC) of the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC) oversees CCCs and requires that they meet certain standards of institutional performance. ACÇJC defines student learning outcomes as the knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes that a student has attained at the end of or as the result of the engagement in a particular set of experiences in college (ACCJC, 2002). Assessment is used to gather evidence and evaluate quality of learning and progress toward benchmarks (League for Innovation in Community College, 2004). …