Linda Suskie

  A Common Sense Approach to Assessment & Accreditation


Why are learning outcomes a good idea?

Posted on January 9, 2018 at 7:25 AM Comments comments (3)

Just before the holidays, the Council of Graduate Schools released Articulating Learning Outcomes in Higher Education. The title is a bit of misnomer; the paper focuses not on how to articulate learning outcomes but on why it’s a good idea to articulate learning outcomes and why it might be a good idea to have a learning outcome framework such as the Degree Qualifications Profile to articulate shared learning outcomes across doctoral programs.

What I found most useful about the paper was the strong case it makes for the value of articulating learning outcomes. It offers some reasons I hadn’t thought of before, and they apply to student learning at all higher education levels, not just doctoral education. If you work with someone who doesn't see the value of articulating learning outcomes, maybe this list will help.

Clearly defined learning outcomes can:

• Help students navigate important milestones by making implicit program expectations explicit, especially to first-generation students who may not know the “rules of the game.”

• Help prospective students weigh the costs and benefits of their educational investments.

• Help faculty prepare students more purposefully for a variety of career paths (at the doctoral level, for teaching as well as research careers).

• Help faculty ensure that students graduate with the knowledge and skills they need for an increasingly broad range of career options, which at the doctoral level may include government, non-profits, and startups as well as higher education and industry.

• Help faculty make program requirements and milestones more student-centered and intentional.

• Help faculty, programs, and institutions define the value of a degree or other credential and improve public understanding of that value.

• Put faculty, programs, and institutions in the driver’s seat, defining the characteristics of a successful graduate rather than having a definition imposed by another entity such as an accreditor or state agency.

What do students most need to learn today?

Posted on July 21, 2015 at 6:55 AM Comments comments (0)

Over the last few years there have been a number of studies of the knowledge, skills, and competencies that employers seek in new hires. The results have varied because many of the studies have asked employers to choose from a predetermined list, and those lists can vary considerably. But last year, when I was working on my book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability, I reviewed those studies and found persistent mention of a number of competencies.

Now some new surveys—one sponsored by AAC&U and others mentioned in a piece by Margaret Andrews in University World News—have reinforced what I found. The following competencies seem most valued by employers, in roughly the following order:

• Teamwork and collaboration

• Communication

• Real-world problem solving

• Evaluating information and conclusions

• Flexibility and adaptability to change

• Creativity and innovation

• Working with people from diverse cultural backgrounds

• Ethical judgment

• Understanding numbers and statistics

How well are your curricula designed—and your faculty prepared and equipped—to help students develop these skills?

Getting a good grade by doing what the teacher says

Posted on February 5, 2015 at 7:55 AM Comments comments (0)

A recent study by Hart Research Associates for the Association of American Colleges & Universities found, among many other things, that only about a quarter of employers are satisfied with the creative and innovative skills of recent college graduates. Why are college graduates so dismal in this respect? Throughout their education, from grade school through college, in most classes, the way to get a good grade is to do what the teacher says: read this assignment, do this homework, write a paper on this topic with these sections, develop a class presentation with these elements. Faculty who teach general education courses in the creative arts—art, theater, creative writing, even graphic design—have told me that students hate taking those courses because they have no experience in “thinking outside the box.”


How can we encourage creativity and innovative thinking? Simply building it into our grading expectations can help. The first time I used a rubric, many, many years ago, I gave it to my class with their assignment, and the papers I received were competent but flat and uninspired. I had to give the best papers A’s because that was what the rubric indicated they should earn, but I was disappointed.


The next time I taught the course, I changed the rubric so that all the previous elements earned only 89 points. The remaining points were for a fairly vague category I labeled “Creative or innovative ideas or insight.” Problem solved! The A papers were exactly what I was hoping for.


Now this was a graduate course, and just putting something on a rubric won’t be enough to help many first-year students. This is where collaborative learning comes into play. Put students into small groups with a provocative, inspiring question for them to discuss, and watch the ideas start to fly.

A vital skill: Seeing the 30,000-foot picture

Posted on July 10, 2014 at 5:35 AM Comments comments (0)

I love Alison Head and John Wihbey’s piece, “At Sea in a Deluge of Data” in this week’s Chronicle of Higher Education. They talk about a particular skill that’s growing in importance in the 21st century, what I call seeing the 30,000-foot picture: taking a lot of information, seeing the big ideas from all that information, and communicating the big points clearly and understandably.


Many colleges have a hard time helping their students develop this skill. Traditional library research papers may help, but they don’t give students the real-world integrative skills that employers are looking for: separating the information wheat from the chaff (the relevant from the irrelevant and the credible from what I like to call the incredible) and communicating big points in short, succinct ways that people can quickly and easily understand (see my earlier blog on infographics).

One reason that I think we have a hard time helping students develop this skill is because so many of us struggle with this ourselves. Seeing the 30,000-foot picture doesn’t come naturally to most people. David Keirsey has found that only about 5-10% of the population has the inherent temperament for big-picture analysis; people are far more likely to be detail-oriented. (You can take the Keirsey Temperament Sorter at and see where you fit.)

I see this a lot in work on assessment and accreditation. People are good at saying, “We used this rubric and here are the scores,” “Students took this survey and here are their responses,” “Here are grade distributions from key gateway courses.” But people often struggle to connect those pieces. What do your rubric, survey, and grade distribution results each say about students’ writing skills, for example? What are they telling you overall about students’ writing skills? Are the survey results and grades helping you understand why you’re getting your rubric results? Accreditors are less interested in a table of results than in what the results are saying to you. What overall conclusions can you draw about your students’ writing skills?


We need both detail and 30,000-foot people working on assessment and accreditation activities. Make sure you’ve got both on your team.

What do students most need to learn today?

Posted on September 14, 2013 at 8:10 AM Comments comments (1)

I've reviewed a number of surveys of employers, and the following crop up most often, in roughly the following order:

• Teamwork and collaboration, including listening

• Written and oral communication, especially articulating ideas clearly and effectively

• Real-world problem solving, especially complex problems, under pressure or “on the fly”

• Critical thinking and analysis, especially in evaluating information and conclusions

• Flexibility and adaptability to change, including the capacity to continue learning

• Creativity and innovation

• Intercultural knowledge and skills, especially working with people from diverse cultural backgrounds

• Ethical judgment

• Quantitative and computer skills, especially understanding numbers and statistics


 This list is similar to but not the same as AAC&U's Essential Outcomes (LEAP goals) and Lumina's Degree Qualifications Profile.


How do your college's program and general education learning outcomes compare to this list? Are your students graduating with the skills they need for success in the 21st century?