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Perspective: Three Things Presidents Need to Know About Student Learning Outcomes Assessment


Stanley O. Ikenberry

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The sheer breadth of what presidents need to know while leading complex academic institutions is mind-boggling. And yet, it is the very scope and reach of the presidency that make the role not just challenging, but on good days incredibly rewarding. Presidents have an opportunity to shape the institutional agenda and a mandate to think about and act strategically on two central priorities: How will we strengthen and secure the long-term future of this campus, and what can we do to improve student success?

Against this backdrop looms a simple but profound question: Given the plethora of issues that compete for the president’s attention, what three things must a president know about collecting and using evidence of student learning? If the president knows just three things about what the institution is doing to gather and employ evidence of student learning—and acts on that knowledge—it will carry the institution a long way and improve the prospects for students.

1. Given an environment that is quite different than it was even a decade ago, a college or university president must incorporate evidence of what students know and are able to do in the process of determining institutional priorities and strategic directions.

No two campuses are the same, and no two presidents can or should set identical priorities and strategic visions in some sort of cookie-cutter manner. Even so, almost every president has a sense of the mega-shifts that are underway and affecting the academy. Student needs and preferences are changing. Most institutions are under pressure from various quarters to improve persistence and graduation rates. Public attitudes toward the enterprise tend to be more critical and less forgiving. Technology is changing the ways in which pedagogy unfolds on and off campus. New providers and academic competitors have emerged. To complicate matters, the supply-demand curve is shifting. In all but 10 states, postsecondary enrollments are flat or down. And for nearly all institutions there is one overriding change: The economic model that sustained most of higher education in prior decades is intensely strained at both public and independent institutions.

Presidents understand these challenging circumstances all too well, living with them every day. What many presidents may not grasp, however, is the importance of using evidence of student learning—what students know and can do—as a leadership tool and as a lever for improving graduation rates, which for some colleges and universities is an understandable presidential preoccupation. To flourish in this new, unforgiving environment, institutions need to do a number of things differently. Yes, campuses will struggle to trim costs, but they will also need to make choices among academic priorities, experiment with new pedagogies, and adopt different policies and practices.

Evidence of the impact of these changes on student success is an essential leadership tool in decision making. The data revealing what students learn as a result of their college or university experience are of crucial importance, not just to presidents but to faculties, governing boards, and to students themselves. If the essential leadership role of the president is to orchestrate an effective institutional strategy and empower the campus to make wise choices, everyone—but especially presidents—will need more and better evidence of what students know and can do.

2. Presidents must understand the investments the institution is already making to gather evidence of student learning and confirm that this information is being harnessed productively to inform the campus’s strategic needs and priorities.

Much of the growth in the assessment of student learning has come in recent decades, driven in large measure by regional and discipline-specific accreditation agencies that demanded more information about what institutions were doing to discover what students were learning. At the same time, the accrediting agencies struggled to find appropriate ways to help colleges and universities to strengthen the relevance and quality of information they were gathering that represented student and institutional performance. The range of assessment tools and approaches expanded dramatically and the number of professionals in the assessment field grew as well. In 2009, institutions reported gathering an average of only about three types of assessment information; just four years later, most colleges and universities were using at least five different approaches. (Kuh et al. 2015).

What follows is a guess, but an informed guess: There is considerably more assessment of student learning taking place on campus than a president may realize. A good deal of assessment work goes on at the program level, especially in professional areas such as engineering, nursing, business, and education. Offices of institutional research gather a huge amount of data. Institutions usually have a central office of assessment with professionals who do this work. The Degree Qualifications Profile provides an operational framework to help faculty and staff focus on the proficiencies students will need to be self-sufficient after graduation. A variety of approaches yield relevant information, such as student, alumni, and employer surveys; general knowledge and skills tests; demonstrations and performances; rubrics and portfolios documenting student accomplishment; and the list goes on. Much of this work, however, is poorly coordinated and too often what it produces goes unexamined and unused. In Using Evidence of Student Learning to Improve Higher Education, my co-authors and I concluded that there is a great deal of assessment activity but it has had an embarrassingly modest impact in ways that help institutions and students.

If this shoe fits, presidents need to ask: How did it happen? Why all the activity and why so little return on the investment? The answer, we believe, lies in the link to accreditation. For many institutions, gathering evidence of student learning became a sporadic act of complying with the demands of accreditation groups rather than a focused effort to gather and to use evidence of student learning in ways that complement the strategic needs and priorities of the institution and lead to smarter decisions that benefit both students and the institution.

3. Presidents must lead the way to the consequential use of evidence of student learning.

It is presidents who must lead the shift in focus from the compliance mechanics of assessment to the gathering and productive use of evidence in ways that improve institutional performance and the success of students. They need not—should not—do it all themselves. But presidents can lead in this arena, as in others, in ways that will bring about consequential change.

First, the president must articulate why the use of evidence of student learning is a strategic priority. There is every reason for an institution to attend to the needs and interests of external entities. It is also possible, however, to meet these external demands while at the same time focusing the gathering and use of evidence of student learning squarely on the strategic needs and priorities of the institution and its students.

Second, presidents don’t work alone; they lead and mobilize others. Beyond the president, the key person for marshaling, coordinating, supporting, and using evidence of student learning is the chief academic officer: the provost.

The president can and must set the tone and articulate the strategic focus for assessment, but it will likely be the provost who will play the central operational role. The faculty, academic deans, senate curriculum committees, the governing board’s academic affairs committee, the alignment of academic priorities with budget realities—all come together in the provost’s office. The president can greatly strengthen and energize that partnership.

The purposes and use of assessment information must be clarified at the outset, not as an afterthought, involving those from beginning to end who will actually use the evidence of student learning. Effective assessment work is often animated by a nagging question or a problem begging to be solved. The vision and sense of direction set by a president and provost can engage and motivate those who ultimately must employ evidence of student learning in practical ways. Engagement among faculty is indispensable, as it is among deans and other academic leaders at the college and departmental level. All must be thought of as potential consumers of evidence, and without their engagement, the evidence of student learning—no matter what it may suggest—is likely to go unattended.

In some instances, campus-wide curriculum committees that oversee academic policy and monitor quality are indispensable champions and partners. Governing board members charged with overseeing mechanisms of academic quality assurance and understanding institutional strategy and priorities are often overlooked as key stakeholders. Presidents are in a position to open these doors and shape the process in ways that make evidence of student learning more useful and productive.

Summing Up

The environment in which higher education functions has shifted. Questions and concerns about what students have learned and what they are able to do with their knowledge have become more important. Results—learning outcomes—matter to society, but they also matter to institutions themselves. Documenting what students have accomplished and using this information effectively is a strategic necessity as presidents lead and manage academic institutions.

Yes, much is already being done on campuses to assess student learning. Still, these efforts often lack focus; they are poorly coordinated; and often they are not transparent to those within and outside the institution. Most important, too little evidence of student learning is being harnessed to strengthen the health and competitive position of the institution and to improve the prospects for success of students in college and beyond.

Presidents can’t do it alone, but presidential leadership can make a huge difference. It is the president who is in the best position to connect the assessment agenda with institutional needs and priorities. The president can shift the emphasis from simply “doing assessment” to using evidence of student learning to make smarter decisions. And it can be the vision of the president that engages the faculty, academic leaders, and members of the board around crucial questions that can make a great difference to the campus and those it serves. If presidents know and act on these fundamentals, the future of higher education will be brighter and more secure.


Kuh, George D., Stanley O. Ikenberry, Natasha A. Jankowski, Timothy Reese Cain, Peter T. Ewell, Pat Hutchings, and Jillian Kinzie. 2015. Using Evidence of Student Learning to Improve Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Adelman, Cliff, Peter Ewell, Paul Gaston, and Carol Geary Schneider. 2014. The Degree Qualifications Profile. Indianapolis: Lumina Foundation.


Stanley O. Ikenberry, a former president of ACE, is president emeritus for the University of Illinois, Regent Professor in its College of Education, and co-principal investigator of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

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