While additional instruments will be added to this initial
review, the list of assessment instruments available for selection is not lengthy. A key finding is the limited number of
instruments that accurately assess the accomplishment of
student learning. More instruments examine “process,” documenting the activities that students undertake and exploring
how they experience college, rather than the achievement of
the institution’s desired student learning outcomes. Of the 13
instruments identified, only two specifically examined student
The review finds current assessment tools quite limited in
options, content, or information developed when instruments
are intended to assess student learning outcomes, address
questions of general knowledge and skills, or drive program
and/or institutional improvement.
The technical specifications of instruments are easy to estimate and easy to access; the developers provide helpful
development and implementation information. But the question of appropriate use begs stakeholders to acknowledge the
limitations of any instrument and apply the information that
it generates accordingly. It is clear that the currently available
instruments are very limited in their abilities to measure the
determinants, antecedents, or factors associated with student
success. These limitations constrain the appropriate use of the
IUPUI: One Size Fits None
The learning communities of Indiana University Purdue
University Indianapolis (IUPUI) have a curricular focus
and are coordinated through academic affairs in close
collaboration with student life. This academic-student life partnership depends on collaboration for its success.
“At IUPUI, we believe ‘one size fits none’ describes our
learning communities,” says Karen Whitney, vice chancellor for
student life and dean of students at IUPUI.
All academic schools follow a Template for First-Year
Seminars that provides basic guidelines for learning communities, but allows each school to tailor the seminars to their
disciplines. The learning communities provide a community
within a community from which student-centered programs
and services engage first-year students. The learning communities include 100 to 110 sections of up to 25 students.
First-Year Seminars are taught by instructional teams
consisting of a faculty member, an academic advisor, a student
mentor, and a librarian. Student affairs professionals regularly
participate as members of the instructional team or contribute
to the seminars as guest lecturers, presenting topics related to
student development, identity development, diversity, and
student leadership. The learning communities have also proven
to be effective information pipelines to first-year students,
resulting in increased participation in student-centered
programs. The seminars orient students to all aspects of the
college experience, including socialization and orientation to
college life; this is particularly important since 60 percent of
IUPUI students are first-generation college students.
tools. Accordingly, technical discussions of what we know
about student success in college must be considered given the
limits of our measurement capabilities.
A practical conundrum emerges, then, regarding current
demands for developing and sharing the story of performance
of higher education. Expedient, valid, reliable assessment using
existing standardized assessment instruments is limited in its
ability to gather or share the whole story of complex, multifaceted students, classrooms, campuses, and educational
systems. We should not let the limited set of currently available
instruments define our thinking and planning by making
analysis and strategy conform to what can be easily measured.
Nor should these instruments frustrate our purposes and lead
us to substitute nice anecdotes for systematic inquiry into the
astute and salient questions emanating from the public about
the value of higher education in society today. The bottom line:
We need better instruments to support true accountability for
Andrew W. Wall is assistant professor of higher education at the
University of Rochester in New York, and senior director of research
and evaluation at Keeling & Associates, LLC in New York.
Richard Keeling, MD, is CEO of Keeling & Associates, LLC.
Expanded learning communities, or themed learning communities (TLCs), link three or more first-year courses and offer a
structured first-semester learning environment in which students
can easily develop strong senses of community and see connections across disciplines. In TLCs, instructors collaborate in
advance to choose themes and develop common learning
experiences. The TLCs also provide an opportunity for student
affairs staff to collaborate with faculty and staff colleagues
across the campus. Student affairs professionals typically join
instructional teams for undeclared majors, where the emphasis
is on student development and career/major exploration.
Student affairs staff members have also presented workshops
to faculty as they prepare to teach first-year students.
Whitney attests, “If senior student affairs officers have not
yet taught college courses, they should. It allows you to relate
to first-year students in a very intentional way. And, if you work
with a team, you do not have to carry the burden of teaching a
full course alone.”
“Student engagement is a key goal for the division of
student life,” says Whitney. “It is clear our participants have
higher levels of student engagement. We grow students into
increasing their levels of campus involvement.”
Whitney also believes that senior student affairs officers
must recognize that the student affairs division does not always
have to take the lead to make learning communities successful.
“The contribution of student life is building community,
engaging students, and using the data to guide the institution.”