4: Educational Quality: Student Learning, Core Competencies, and Standards of Performance at Graduation

Institutions of higher education have a responsibility to document that students acquire knowledge and develop higher-order intellectual skills appropriate to the level of the degree earned. This documentation is a matter of validating institutional quality and providing accountability as well as setting the conditions for improvement of learning.

In the 2013 Handbook, CFR 2.2a states that baccalaureate programs must: “ensure the development of core competencies including, but not limited to, written and oral communication, quantitative reasoning, information literacy, and critical thinking.”

The institutional review process calls upon institutions to describe how the curriculum addresses each of the five core competencies, explain their learning outcomes in relation to those core competencies, and demonstrate, through evidence of student performance, the extent to which those outcomes are achieved. If they wish, institutions may create their own limited list of essential higher-order competencies beyond the five listed. They may also report student performance in majors or professional fields and in terms of institution-level learning outcomes that make the institution’s graduates distinctive. The institution analyzes the evidence according to its own judgment, reports on student achievement of its learning outcomes in a way that makes sense for the institution (e.g., as a single score, or within ranges or qualitative categories), contextualizes the findings according to the mission and priorities of the institution, and formulates its own plans for improvement, if needed.

For example, for each core competency, the institution may set a specific level of performance expected at graduation and gather evidence of the achievement of that level of performance (which can be based on sampling) using the assessment methods of its choice.

The five core competencies listed in the Handbook are relevant in virtually any field of study, though different fields may define these outcomes in different ways and may also include other outcomes. At many institutions, it is the assessment of learning in the major or professional field that engages faculty and produces the most useful findings. Thus institutions may wish to embed assessment of core competencies in assessment of the major or professional field. Capstones, portfolios, research projects, signature assignments, internships, and comprehensive examinations provide rich evidence that can be analyzed for multiple outcomes, both specialized and common to all programs, at a point close to graduation as determined by the institution. Whatever the expectations and findings, they need to be contextualized and discussed in this component of the institutional report.

It is the institution’s responsibility to set expectations for learning outcomes that are appropriate to the institution’s mission, programs offered, student characteristics, and other criteria. The Commission is not seeking a minimum standard of performance that students would already meet upon entry or upon completion of lower-division general education courses. Nor does it seek outcomes common to all institutions irrespective of mission. Rather, the Commission seeks learning outcomes and standards of performance that are appropriately ambitious, that faculty and students can take pride in, and that can be explained and demonstrated to external audiences. If a given competency is not a priority for the institution or a particular field of study, expectations may legitimately be lower.  Within the context of the institution’s mission, the evaluation team then weighs the appropriateness of outcomes, standards, and evidence of attainment.

Standards of performance are best set through internal discussion among faculty and other campus educators. Although it is not required, institutions may benefit from external perspectives and collaboration with other institutions, e.g., through benchmarking or use of comparative data. For example, an institution may join a consortium that shares assessment findings and calibrates desired levels of performance.

Graduate programs and graduate-only institutions are expected to define and assess the generic intellectual competencies that are foundational in their field. CFR 2.2b, which refers to graduate programs, calls for expectations that are “clearly . . . differentiated from and more advanced than undergraduate programs in terms of . . . standards of performance and student learning outcomes.” Graduate programs also set standards of performance, choose assessment methods, interpret the results, and act on findings in ways that make sense for the program and institution.

Prompts: The following prompts may be helpful in getting started, but the institution is not required to follow these prompts or respond to them directly.

  • What knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes should students possess when they graduate with a degree from the institution? What are the key learning outcomes for each level of degree?
    • For undergraduate programs, how do the institution’s key learning outcomes align with the core competencies set forth in CFR 2.2a? (CFRs 2.3, 2.4.)
    • For graduate programs, how are graduate level outcomes developed? How do these outcomes align with CFR 2.2b? (CFRs 2.3, 2.4)
  • What are the standards of performance for students? How are these standards set, communicated, and validated? (CFR 2.6)
  • What methods are used to assess student learning and achievement of these standards? When is learning assessed in these areas (e.g., close to graduation or at some other milestone? (CFRs 2.4, 2.6, 4.3)
  • What evidence is there that key learning outcomes are being met? (CFR 2.6)
  • What steps are taken when achievement gaps are identified? How are teaching and learning improved as a result of assessment findings? (CFRs 2.4, 2.6, 4.3, 4.4)
  • What role does program review play in assessing and improving the quality of learning? (CFRs 2.7, 4.1)
  • How deeply embedded is learning-centeredness across the institution? What is the evidence? (CFRs 4.1-4.3)