Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Some learning goals are promises we can't keep

Posted on May 2, 2018 at 6:55 AM

I look on learning goals as promises that we make to students, employers, and society: If a student passes a course or graduates, he or she WILL be able to do the things we promise in our learning goals.

But there are some things we hope to instill in students that we can’t guarantee. We can’t guarantee, for example, that every graduate will be a passionate lifelong learner, appreciate artistic expressions, or make ethical decisions. I think these kinds of statements are important aims that might be expressed in a statement of values, but they’re not really learning goals, because they’re something we hope for, not something we can promise. Because they’re not really learning goals, they’re very difficult if not impossible statements to assess meaningfully.

How can you tell if a learning goal is true learning goal—an assessable promise that we try to keep? Ask yourself the following questions.

Is the learning goal stated clearly, using observable action verbs? Appreciate diversity is a promise we may not be able to keep, but Communicate effectively with people from diverse backgrounds is an achievable, assessable learning goal.

How have others assessed this learning goal? If someone else has assessed it meaningfully and usefully, don’t waste time reinventing the wheel.

How would you recognize people who have achieved this learning goal? Imagine that you run into two alumni of your college. As you talk with them, it becomes clear that one appreciates artistic expressions and the other doesn’t. What might they say about their experiences and views that would lead you to that conclusion? This might give you ideas on ways to express the learning goal in more concrete, observable terms, which makes it easier to figure out how to assess it.

Is the learning goal teachable? Ask faculty who aim to instill this learning goal to share how they help students achieve it. If they can name specific learning activities, the goal is teachable—and assessable, because they can grade the completed learning activities. But if the best they can say is something like, “I try to model it” or “I think they pick it up by osmosis,” the goal may not be teachable—or assessable. Don’t try to assess what can’t be taught.

What knowledge and skills are part of this learning goal? We can’t guarantee, for example, that all graduates will make ethical decisions, but we can make sure that they recognize ethical and unethical decisions, and we can assess their ability to do so.

How important is this learning goal? Most faculty and colleges I work with have too many learning goals—too many to assess well and, more important, too many to help students achieve well in the time we have with them. Ask yourself, “Can our students lead happy and fulfilling lives if they graduate without having achieved this particular learning goal?”

But just because a learning goal is a promise we can’t keep doesn’t mean it isn’t important. A world in which people fail to appreciate artistic expressions or have compassion for others would be a dismal place. So continue to acknowledge and value hard-to-assess learning goals even if you’re not assessing them.

For more information on assessing the hard-to-assess, see Chapter 21 of the new 3rd edition of Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide.

Categories: How to assess, Learning goals