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January-February 2011

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Closing the Assessment Loop

The idea for this article originated in what sounded like a simple request from Change editor, Peg Miller. She asked for some examples of the ways in which the results of student learning outcomes assessments, particularly those derived from standardized tests, had been used to stimulate improvements in teaching, learning, and student services such as advising. The request sounded reasonable—until we began searching for examples.

We scoured current literature, consulted experienced colleagues, and reviewed our own experiences, but we could identify only a handful of examples of the use of assessment findings in stimulating improvements. In fact, among 146 profiles of good practice submitted by colleagues at campuses from across the country for possible inclusion in a new book, Trudy Banta, Elizabeth Jones, and Karen Black found that only 6 percent of the profiles contained evidence that student learning had improved, no matter what measure had been used. Likewise, in their evaluation of the Wabash National Study, Charles Blaich and Kathleen Wise noted strong campus engagement with the process of assessment but few instances of actual change in response to the information generated by the study.

Accreditors, speakers at assessment conferences, and campus leaders all decry the fact that too few faculty are closing the loop—that is, studying assessment findings to see what improvements might be suggested and taking the appropriate steps to make them. This is difficult enough with locally developed measures; adding the need to interpret nationally standardized test scores and connect them with local programs and teaching approaches exacerbates the difficulty of the task. It is even rarer to find that the effects of making improvements on the basis of assessment findings are monitored over time to see if the desired outcomes are attained.

Trudy W. Banta is a professor of higher education and senior advisor to the chancellor for academic planning and evaluation at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. Recipient of eight national awards, Banta has written or edited 17 books on outcomes assessment in higher education, including, with Elizabeth A. Jones and Karen E. Black, Designing Effective Assessment: Principles and Profiles of Good Practice (Jossey Bass, 2009).

Charles Blaich is the director of the Center of Inquiry in the Liberal Arts at Wabash College. He taught at Eastern Illinois University from 1987 to 1991 and moved to Wabash in 1991, becoming the director of the center in 2002. Blaich also directs the Wabash National Study and the Teagle Assessment Scholar program.

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