Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Closing the Loop: Linking Planning and Assessment

Academic journal article Planning for Higher Education

Closing the Loop: Linking Planning and Assessment

Article excerpt

What can be done about the disconnect on most campuses between planning processes and assessment processes?

As an avid consumer of literature on effective planning, I can attest to the fact that there is no shortage of writings that describe how institutions can best organize for planning activity, that offer a plethora of conceptual frameworks for both long-range and strategic planning, and that assure institutions that they will have the optimal structure in place for planning into perpetuity. What these writings lack - and what I would argue most professional development activities related to the teaching of planning also lack - is a feedback loop that informs institutions how effective those plans are in moving them forward toward the realization of their institutional mission and planning goals.1

As a commissioner with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, one of six regional accrediting bodies in the United States, and as a consultant on planning and assessment at a wide range of institutions across the country, I am often struck by the apparent disconnect between the planning and assessment processes at colleges and universities. To be sure, most institutions are conscientious about efforts to implement systematic planning. And they are equally conscientious about efforts to assess student learning and institutional effectiveness. The problem is that the planning and assessment processes all too often do not talk to each other.

Why Assess?

We begin this discussion of integrating planning and assessment with the premise that, whatever an institution's Carnegie classification (from two-year colleges to research universities), the core function of that institution is the teaching/learning process. Whether in a molecular biology laboratory at a major research university or a remedial math classroom at the local community college, the exchange between faculty and students is the raison d'etre for the institution's existence. Of course, pure and applied research can occur in the laboratories of corporations, and job skills training can be provided by proprietary entities. It is the creation and dissemination of new and existing knowledge and the inculcation of general education knowledge and skills that separate colleges and universities from other types of organizations. If state-of-the-art teaching and learning are not taking place, then there is little reason for public or private support of higher education institutions.

Planning and assessment processes all too often do not talk to each other.

That said, the fact that postsecondary institutions have previously done an unsatisfactory job of assessing student learning and/or communicating the results of those assessments to external publics is precisely why higher education has come under the scrutiny of state and federal agencies. If colleges and universities had been able to consistently and clearly provide multiple streams of evidence that students are intellectually and socially transformed by higher education, then the current pressure for accountability from the U.S. Department of Education and state legislatures would likely be considerably muted. The simple fact is that parents and legislators are underwriting substantial tuitions at both public and private institutions with little information regarding return on investment.

Assessing Student Learning Outcomes

Without devoting an inordinate amount of space to the assessment of student learning outcomes, it is important to underscore that the traditional approaches to this type of assessment - most notably course grades - have proven insufficient in informing either institutional planning processes or general decisions related to policy. Grades frequently are determined by how, and the extent to which, students actively participate in class. The core content of a course - and consequently the basis upon which grades are assessed - can vary across instructors and sections within the same course. …

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