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V5I4: Demystifying NWCCU’s Assessment Standards


Ed Harri, Senior Vice President

In March 2023, NWCCU’s Executive Vice President Selena Grace introduced the first in our series on demystifying NWCCU Standards for Accreditation. In this issue of The Beacon, we will focus on Standards 1.C.5 – 1.C.7 (i.e., the assessment Standards).

In Evaluation visits prior to 2020, most colleges and universities struggled to demonstrate effective assessment systems with clear structures that could demonstrate systematic assessment of student learning, and the use of results for improved learning and teaching.

Since implementation of the new Standards in 2020, assessment standards are still the most cited in Recommendations, making up 33% of the total Recommendations since 2020. Currently, 85 institutions have one or more Recommendations citing Standards 1.C.5, 1.C.6, and/or 1.C.7. However, many institutions are beginning to demonstrate effective systems and making significant progress.

The 2020 Standards center assessment practices in a continuous improvement context and provide significant institutional flexibility in meeting the Standards. Many institutions are demonstrating meaningful progress, while others are still struggling to make sense of the Standards or are stuck in the planning or pilot stages. This article aims to clarify the key elements of these Standards and share some of the learnings demonstrated by institutions making observable progress for the benefit of students.

For the Standard One criterion, NWCCU provides rubrics that break the Standards into component parts and describe levels of institutional progress on these components. The rubrics were developed with the initial launch of the Standards and will be revised now that the Standards have been in place for three years, and we have undergone our own lessons learned and continuous improvement processes. While there is an opportunity for improved clarity in the rubrics, they provide a simplified tool for helping institutions gain clarity on the Standards, to self-assess their own placement on the spectrum, and to plan for process improvement.

Let’s break down each Standard, the primary intent and different approaches for demonstration by an institution.

Standard 1.C.5. The institution engages in an effective system of assessment to evaluate the quality of learning in its programs. The institution recognizes the central role of faculty to establish curricula, assess student learning, and improve instructional programs.

  • Primary intent: The institution evaluates student learning throughout instructional programs, using faculty expertise, in a systematic manner that regularly reviews student learning, program effectiveness, and the effectiveness of assessment structures. Learning outcomes are identified at the course, program, and degree level.
  • Demonstration of achievement: Institutions provide evidence of an effective system by having clear and well documented processes for assessing student learning, demonstrating that these processes are implemented, and that data from the implementation is reviewed and utilized for improving student learning and program effectiveness. The effectiveness is often demonstrated by having a system that is clear to the faculty participants, gathers useful data, has processes for review, and is integrated in the program review process.

Standard 1.C.6. Consistent with its mission, the institution establishes and assesses, across all associate and bachelor level programs or within a General Education curriculum, institutional learning outcomes and/or core competencies. Examples of such learning outcomes and competencies include, but are not limited to, effective communication skills, global awareness, cultural sensitivity, scientific and quantitative reasoning, critical analysis and logical thinking, problem solving, and/or information literacy.

  • Primary intent: The institution has established institutional learning outcomes or core competencies that provide documented value for all degrees that reflect a synthesis of learning that is overarching across programs.
  • Demonstration of achievement: This Standard is demonstrated by having clearly identified institutional learning outcomes or core competencies; a clear approach to assessing student learning of these outcomes regardless of student degree program; and a process for presenting and reviewing data that allows an institution to identify student strengths and areas for growth.

Standard 1.C.7. The institution uses the results of its assessment efforts to inform academic and learning-support planning and practices to continuously improve student learning outcomes.

  • Primary intent: The institution regularly reviews outcomes assessment results to inform teaching and learning practices for effective programs and to inform planning for student services that support student learning and achievement, both of which aim to improve student learning of the outcomes. This is often referred to as closing the loop.
  • Demonstration of achievement: Institutions often demonstrate this by having integrated processes for review of student learning with program review processes or through institutional effectiveness review. Results are documented, shared widely, and integrated in institutional plans and requests for resources.

Because of the differences in NWCCU member institutions, very few of the assessment frameworks look the same from institution to institution. Nonetheless, there are some similarities among institutions that are struggling to implement effective assessment systems and among those institutions that are demonstrating meaningful progress.

The following characteristics are regularly observed in institutions who are in emerging stages of assessment work or are receiving Recommendations requiring more immediate review.

  1. The institution spends significant time focused on basic definitions and develops complicated reporting structures that are not well understood by faculty and may not be actually assessing student learning in programs and across the curriculum.
  2. The institution is focused on course level assessment and not able to rise to the program and institutional level to review the synthesis of learning. This often means there is limited collaborative and inter-disciplinary analysis of results by faculty.
  3. The institution is not actually assessing student learning. They’ve built systems and written learning outcomes, but don’t yet have a systematic cycle where there is a regular and recurring cycle of assessment and review of results.
  4. The institution is typically using more indirect measures of assessment, and few if any direct measures of assessment.

What are the characteristics of the institutions that are demonstrating progress?

  1. The institution is focused on building meaningful and simple systems that work for their institutional context.
  2. Leadership and faculty are very clear about the purpose of assessment at the institution and what is intended with the systems they have. Implementation of structures is seen not as administratively driven or faculty driven but involves collaboration between both stakeholders.
  3. Appropriately qualified and influential individuals are in place to move and lead the work with high levels of faculty engagement at all stages.
  4. There is action and review even when the processes are in formative stages. Assessment and review of the results occurs regularly and the processes are reviewed with a willingness to make changes to processes that are not effective or meaningful. Almost always, the changes they make are to simplify and clarify.

Note that the use of technology for collecting and reporting on outcomes assessment data is not listed as a characteristic of struggling or thriving institutions when it comes to assessment. Many institutions use reporting software, some use a learning management system, and some use home-grown reporting mechanisms. The effectiveness of these systems is typically based on the planning, structure, and buy-in rather than the product itself. When used to augment an effective design, it can be very useful; however, for institutions stuck in initial stages, the time it takes for implementation without a clear vision can serve as a hinderance to progress.

Because of the critical importance of student learning and its role in informing institutional investments and improvement in instruction and services, NWCCU will continue to offer support and programming in a variety of forms related to outcomes assessment. You will see this in the form of webinars, workshops, and sessions at the annual conference. We encourage you to connect with your NWCCU Staff Liaison, who can offer tailored training and workshops depending on where your institution and faculty are at in the process of assessing student learning.


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