Communication Currents

Why and How Higher Education is Changing . . . for the Better

June 1, 2011
Higher Education

Higher education is changing and it’s changing for the better. Many disciplines assess student learning and use what is learned to transform their educational programs. Many, if not most, colleges and universities have a campus wide process for assessing student learning. However, the time is right for faculty and administrators to respond vigorously to the current criticism of higher education by reviewing their assessment practices, where they have been, where they are going, and what stakeholders and employers now expect of them. 

We are living in a time of unprecedented change in higher education, as a result of two closely related factors – stakeholders’ criticism of the quality of education students are getting and employers’ concerns about students’ skills readiness for the workplace, such as communication skills. Outspoken critics are wondering whether a college degree is still a good deal for students. Not surprisingly, no discipline or department is immune from the criticism. From psychology to sociology, biology to physics, and computer science to information management systems – faculty and administrators are being held accountable to provide “value added” education.

Criticism of higher education comes from respected sources. A recent two-year study by the Pathways to Prosperity Project at Harvard University notes that the current U.S. education system is failing to prepare millions of young adults for successful careers.The National Professional and Organizational Development Network in Higher Education (POD Network) agrees: “Our constituents, from taxpayers and parents to legislators and business leaders, demand that colleges and universities educate their students better.”  In the private sector, employers are calling for college graduates with the value-added skills essential to workplace success. Hart Research Associates conducted a survey, on behalf of the Association of American Colleges and Universities, asking employers what they want in college graduates in the post-downturn, globalized 21st century workplace. Only one in four employers thinks colleges are doing a good job preparing graduates for the challenges of a global economy. Eighty-nine percent said the most important skill is “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing.”

This criticism of higher education and employers’ expectations of graduates mandates a tangible and timely response. The POD Network calls our attention to a need for measurement and assessment of student learning outcomes:

“The hottest issue in higher education may well be student learning – how to improve, measure, and ensure it.”

As a national initiative, early mandates to assess student learning in the 1970’s often were perceived as an inappropriate expectation of faculty set by college administrators and legislators. Many faculty members firmly believed their current practices for grading knowledge and performance were quite sufficient. But times and attitudes evolved, and assessment is now institutionalized on the majority of American campuses.

Today a wide range of organizations external to campuses—regional accrediting bodies, legislatures, state boards of education, and others—endorse and mandate assessment. They require assessment as part of their accountability processes to ensure faculty in higher education are doing their jobs well. These two processes—assessment and accountability—may be a source of confusion, particularly for those outside higher education like employers. Put simply, when we assess our own performance or that of our students, it is assessment; when others assess our performance or that of our department, program, or institution, it is accountability. Assessment is fundamental to accountability, although it is not the same thing.

Yes, assessment in higher education has matured considerably over the years. And the assessment practices and processes developed in one discipline, communication, may serve as a model to others. For example, strong assessment programs at some institutions can assure employers the communication skills they consider critical are being taught by communication faculty and assessed by departments and entire institutions.

The recent comprehensive review of assessment in the communication discipline summarized in this essay examined trends over a 35-year period, back to 1975 when assessment began to take on national impetus. A careful analysis of convention papers, research studies, and books about assessing communication resulted in a database of 434 national convention presentations, 89 journal articles, and 35 other books and publications. Based on these 558 discussions, three main themes or questions emerged.

  1. What is communication assessment and why do we do it? This theme includes theoretical issues, fundamentals of communication assessment, and reflections about the communication process and why it’s important.
  1. What is assessed? This theme focuses on what should be evaluated in the assessment process, including specific student learning outcomes and elements in program/department evaluation.
  1. How is it assessed? This theme considers the “how to’s” of assessment practices and processes, including guidelines and frameworks, assessment in specific situations and courses, and strategies, techniques, and assessment instruments.

The communication researchers who conducted the review used what they learned to provide recommendations to educators in higher education. They point to four reasons for engaging in assessment: It is good for students because it provides information to develop a stronger education program. It brings faculty together to think beyond their individual courses as they examine their entire curriculum. It satisfies the “need to know” of external agencies and employers. And, most important, it is the right thing to do! Timely improvement is the main reason for all disciplines to assess student learning.

For administrators in higher education, the researchers identified useful assessment strategies, other than grades, including: surveys, interviews, focus groups, capstone courses, and portfolios. They suggested department and program administrators facilitate strategic planning meetings with faculty about their assessment activities. These seven discussion questions could help position assessment as an integral part of defining, reviewing, and redefining academic programs:

  1. Who are we and why do we exist? What is the mission of our program?
  2. What do we want to accomplish? What are our goals and objectives?
  3. What assessment procedures can we use to determine if the goals and objectives are met?
  4. Whom do we serve? What expectations do our stakeholders, including employers, have of our graduates?
  5. What is our assessment plan and is it sufficiently rigorous?
  6. What are the results of our assessment program and how are they being used?
  7. What changes will we make to our goals/objectives/outcomes/processes based on the results? 

About the author (s)

Sherwyn Morreale

University of Colorado, Colorado Springs