Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Five Big Ideas about Assessing General Education

Posted on May 23, 2015 at 9:15 AM

I recently had the pleasure to speak to faculty and administrators at a college in New England on assessing their gen ed curriculum. Here are the five big ideas I shared with them.


Big Idea #1: Gen Ed Assessment is Hard! It’s harder than assessing student learning in programs (majors) or individual courses, for several reasons.

  • American colleges and universities are frankly embarrassed of their gen ed requirements. The requirements are typically buried down deep on the college’s website or in its catalog, and academic advisors typically talk about gen ed requirements as something to “get out of the way.”
  • There’s often no ownership of gen ed. Who’s in charge of the humanities or social sciences requirement, for example, making sure it delivers on its intentions?
  • Gen ed outcomes are often fuzzy, and it’s hard to assess fuzzy goals meaningfully.
  • Gen ed assessment requires collaboration, and many colleges operate in a culture of isolation.


Big Idea #2: It’s All about Goals. I take gen ed learning outcomes very seriously. They are a promise that the college is making: Every undergraduate who completes the gen ed requirements, no matter which gen ed courses or sections he or she has chosen, is competent at every gen ed outcome. But a lot of gen ed curricula aren’t designed to ensure this. Yes, many students graduate competent in all gen ed learning outcomes, but it’s possible for some students to fall through the net and graduate without some of these important competencies.


Big Idea #3: Gen Ed Assessment Shouldn’t Be All that Different from What You’re Already Doing. If you’re teaching it and grading it, you’re assessing it. Gen ed assessment is often the biggest struggle for faculty who haven’t been addressing key gen ed competencies in their courses.

Big Idea #4: Keep This as Easy as You Can.

  • Start at the end and work backwards; if your gen ed curriculum has a sophomore or junior capstone, start there. The capstone projects should demonstrate achievement of a number of gen ed outcomes. If the projects show great communication, critical thinking, and information literacy skills (or whatever your gen ed outcomes are), you’re done!
  • Look for the biggest return on investment. At many colleges, the 80-20 rule applies: 80% of undergraduates enroll in only 20% of gen ed course offerings. Start by assessing student learning in those courses.
  • Keep your gen ed outcomes and curriculum lean. The more learning outcomes you have and the more courses you offer, the more work you have to keep everything updated, aligned, and assessed. I’m also seeing research that lean community college gen ed curricula actually increase student success rates.

Big Idea #5: Make Accountability Pressures Work for You. Rather than view calls for accountability as a threat, look on them as an opportunity.

  • Demonstrate that you are doing what everyone wants: for students to get the best possible education.
  • Tell the world how good you are and, when assessment results are disappointing, what you’re doing to get even better.
  • Show that you use your limited resources wisely—that the investments by students, taxpayers, and donors are making a difference, in a cost-effective way.
  • Show that you are keeping your promises, especially that your students are indeed learning what you promise.

Categories: Gen ed/liberal arts, How to assess