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Are colleges being transparent about efforts to measure student learning?

A joint research institute of Indiana University and the University of Illinois released a report recently analyzing the degree to which colleges and universities make available what they are doing to assess student learning.

"Making Student Learning Evidence Transparent: The State of the Art," from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment, is based on information from the websites of 200 colleges and universities across the U.S. and describes how institutions display assessment results, the progress higher education has made in the past few years in terms of institutional transparency, and the impact of national transparency initiatives to encourage schools to report such information.

The national transparency initiatives examined include the Voluntary System of Accountability, the University and College Accountability Network, Transparency by Design and Achieving the Dream.

George Kuh

George Kuh

According to George Kuh, the NILOA director, Chancellor's Professor Emeritus of Higher Education at the Indiana University School of Education and adjunct professor of higher education at the University of Illinois, the set of studies on which the report is based "may be the most comprehensive examination yet of institutional transparency in terms of student learning outcomes and assessment activities."

Stanley Ikenberry, a NILOA researcher and University of Illinois president emeritus, calls this NILOA project "a ground-breaking effort that will allow us to estimate the progress we will make down the line in addressing the transparency issue." For example, accreditation seems to matter in terms of encouraging transparency; public institutions and institutions accredited since 2008 showed more assessment information than independent institutions and institutions not recently accredited.

Other key findings from the study include:

  • Institutions are reporting more information about student learning on their websites than found previously, but the information appears to represent only a fraction of the assessment activity under way.
  • Assessment results are most often found only on internal institutional research Web pages not routinely searched by prospective students, parents and other interested parties.
  • Even when institutions share the results of student learning assessments, rarely is the information presented in an easy-to-read form or tailored to a specific audience.
  • While more than half of all institutions posted the results of student learning outcomes assessment on their websites, only a third offered examples of how they are using results.
  • Institutions participating in national transparency initiatives, particularly those in Voluntary System of Accountability and Transparency by Design, tended to make more assessment information public than did nonparticipating institutions.
  • None of the 200 colleges and universities examined presented information about whether the assessment results led to improved student learning following changes in teaching and learning approaches or policies and other practices.

NILOA researchers point out that while institutions now share what they are doing in terms of assessing student learning more frequently than many might suspect, much more can be done to make assessment information easier to understand and to use by both external and internal audiences. The report provides recommendations to colleges and universities to enhance transparency of evidence of student learning and subsequent use including utilizing the NILOA Transparency Framework.

The NILOA project, a collaborative effort between Indiana University and University of Illinois, is supported by grants from Lumina Foundation for Education, Carnegie Corporation of New York and Teagle Foundation. The ideas and information contained in the publication are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of NILOA funders.

The NILOA report series, "Making Student Learning Evidence Transparent: The State of the Art," may be retrieved in pdf form at