Show Me the Learning: Value, Accreditation, and the Quality of the Degree: Higher Education Now Has Both Tools and Frameworks for Organizing and Connecting Teaching and Learning in a Meaningful Way

By Rhodes, Terrel L. | Planning for Higher Education, April-June 2012 | Go to article overview

Show Me the Learning: Value, Accreditation, and the Quality of the Degree: Higher Education Now Has Both Tools and Frameworks for Organizing and Connecting Teaching and Learning in a Meaningful Way


Rhodes, Terrel L., Planning for Higher Education


In the continuing environment of efficiency and accountability, too often we have created false distinctions between reducing costs and improving productivity as opposed to examining the quality of the product produced and the work completed. In higher education, professional and regional accreditation agencies have traditionally been the standard setters for academic program quality. Accrediting agencies describe the areas of learning that institutions and programs should provide in order to be recognized as meeting minimal standards in the preparation of their graduates. The accreditor's recognition of an institution or program signifies that its graduates meet minimal levels of knowledge or competence and therefore financial aid can be provided to the institution's students. It also signifies that the institution's or program's graduates are worthy of consideration for employment in their respective areas of study.

Given the emphasis on increasing access to higher education, connecting the funding of public institutions to student retention and completion, and decreasing the time to degree by shortening degree programs and reducing the costs of attendance, both accreditors and institutions are under pressure. As a result, much of the public discourse and policy discussion has been focused on the number and percentage of students entering and completing college, with little, and definitely not equal, emphasis on the quality of learning. Accrediting bodies have been the one organizational entity that has required institutions to provide evidence of student learning outcomes. The challenge is that the measures of student learning readily available to capture and report at the institutional or programmatic level typically have been restricted to a very small set of outcomes and are not directly connected to the curriculum and co-curriculum.

Learning that Matters

University and college faculty and other academic and student affairs professionals have been telling us that students need a broad range of learning outcomes in order to meet the challenges of contemporary global society. In an Association of American Colleges and Universities (2007) publication, College Learning for the New Global Century, the results of surveys, focus groups, and conversations with faculty from all types of higher education institutions across the country were synthesized and the learning outcomes deemed essential for college graduates were summarized. These "Essential Learning Outcomes" (figure 1) provide a succinct listing of the learning embedded in the curriculum and co-curriculum of our higher education institutions and reflected in our mission statements and college catalogs. Since the 2007 College Learning report was issued, hundreds of campuses, including state systems of higher education in California, Wisconsin, and Oregon, have adopted and/or adapted the Essential Learning Outcomes as the learning outcomes for all of their graduates.

In a series of national surveys conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates (2006, 2008, 2010), employers echoed the need for college graduates to possess higher levels of learning in all of the Essential Learning Outcomes. Although stated in slightly different language than that used by faculty, employers strongly expressed that today's global environment requires employees who can apply their knowledge in complex, sophisticated, and unscripted situations that are not necessarily similar to the types of challenges confronted in past decades. Knowledge is critical, but being able to make higher-order judgments about the knowledge needed in new, innovative, and unanticipated circumstances is also increasingly necessary for success.

Figure 1 The Essential Learning Outcomes

Beginning in school, and continuing at successively
higher levels across their college studies, students
should prepare for twenty-first-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

Intellectual and Practical Skills, including

* Inquiry and analysis

* Critical and creative thinking

* Written and oral communication

* Quantitative literacy

* Information literacy

* Teamwork and problem solving

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

Integrative Learning, including

* Synthesis and advanced accomplishment across
general and specialized studies

Association of American Colleges and Universities 2007, p. 

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Show Me the Learning: Value, Accreditation, and the Quality of the Degree: Higher Education Now Has Both Tools and Frameworks for Organizing and Connecting Teaching and Learning in a Meaningful Way
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