Love of Learning: The Motivation Behind Assessment

By Lisa Bortman
Assistant Provost for Assessment and Institutional Effectiveness

Pepperdine University is preparing for its 10-year accreditation examination from the Western Association of Schools and Colleges (WASC). On July 5, 2012, the University will submit its self-study, the Educational Effectiveness Report (EER). On September 26 through 28 we will host an onsite team from  WASC that will investigate and confirm what we reported to them. The WASC team will meet with students, faculty, administrators, regents, and staff. The primary purpose of this visit will be to learn about the quality of the education at Pepperdine University.

Accreditation of colleges and universities in the United States serves the primary purpose of ensuring to the public the quality of an educational degree. It ensures that the institution met a set of standards for review established by WASC; these include how the faculty met the qualifications, that the institution is financially sound, that the facilities and programming meet the students’ needs, and that students are actually learning. Most colleges and universities claim to be excellent institutions of higher learning, but most often no attempt is made to prove this beyond reputation. The self- study allows us to assemble evidence to demonstrate our excellence.

As the federal government became a major funder of higher education—even of private education—the expectations have increased. Government leaders and the public in general have demanded evidence of student learning. Changes in accreditation have been in response to the 2006 report from the Spelling Commission stating that college students are leaving college poorly prepared, and from Peter Ewell’s 2008 report “U.S. Accrediation and the Future of Quality Assurance,” that higher education institutions are underperforming. The current population of students attending colleges and universities has dramatically changed. Just 100 years ago a college education was reserved for males in wealthy families. Middle- and working-class families usually learned a trade as an apprentice. The college population is extremely different now. Women outnumber men at most institutions, and currently the fastest growing population of college students is coming from more diverse ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds. The age range of students has also broadened with many students returning to college as “nontraditional” students.

Meanwhile, since the economic crisis of 2008, middle-class families have had fewer resources to finance their children’s education. Yet government funding (particularly at the state level and in certain federal programs) has diminished as the cost of tuition has risen. Doubts about higher education in general have been fueled further by the bad behavior of certain for-profit institutions. All of this has resulted in local and federal governments applying pressure for higher education institutions to prove their worth and demonstrate to the public the benefit of investing such a huge amount of money and time in a college degree.

This demand has been placed on all institutions, including those like Pepperdine, which have truly been committed to providing students with an outstanding education. The focus on assessment and accountability, I believe, provides the “Pepperdines” of the world a chance to shine. We have taken advantage of this opportunity to share with WASC and the greater community the ways in which we in fact do provide an excellent education. Pepperdine has decided to embrace the call by investing time and resources to measure what our students are learning and, where possible, to compare our results to internal, national, and international standards. This is accomplished through assessment of learning.

Accreditors want specific data that backs up our claim that what we say students are learning is actually happening. They want transparency and evidence. Pepperdine’s office of Institutional Effectiveness with the Advancement of Student Learning Council have spent the past two years working with faculty on ways to measure and report student learning in preparation of our EER.

Assessment of student learning has been no easy task. It demands a great deal of time from an already very busy faculty. However, our response has been to ask faculty not to think about collecting evidence to report to WASC, but to think about collecting evidence to improve student learning. I don’t think there is a faculty member at Pepperdine who is not interested in finding ways to improve his or her teaching and to demonstrate that our students are learning. Love of learning must be the motivation behind assessment.

What does student learning look like at Pepperdine University? It looks great! As reported in our EER, the Pepperdine learning experience is rich in educationally effective practices. we have reported on student learning at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Our reports talk about our high-impact practices such as undergraduate research experiences, writing across the curriculum, internships, and study abroad. We have invested in measurements of student learning that involve sound  methodologies and utilize tools such as rubrics to measure learning. We have also set the expectation across the institution that academic decisions must be based on evidence of student learning and not anecdotal measures.

In conclusion, we have entered a new era of accountability in higher education. Citizens, legislators, and parents want to know how well we are doing. They want specific data that back up our claim that we are doing what we say we are doing. They want transparency and evidence. We intend to supply it—in both quality and quantity. We believe that we can present evidence that Pepperdine University is a serious, strong institution of higher learning.

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