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Measuring College Learning Project

The quality of undergraduate education has become a central question in academic and policy circles in recent decades. But how do we define quality? And how can we measure it? While many actors in the higher education arena are grappling with these issues, we believe it is crucial for faculty to be a leading voice in the quality conversation. The SSRC’s Measuring College Learning project, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Teagle Foundation, brings faculty into the quality conversation by engaging them in consensus-driven discussions about learning outcomes and assessment in higher education.

MCL builds on decades of prior work by the higher education community, including efforts to develop guidelines for general learning outcomes. These efforts have led to the creation of a range of tools that faculty can use to measure students’ general skills, such as critical thinking, complex reasoning, and problem solving. However, as beneficial as these resources are, they do not cover the full scope of learning in higher education. The next step in this process, and the main focus of MCL, is to concentrate on developing 21st Century tools to measure field-specific learning.

Since December 2013, MCL has been bringing panels of faculty together from six fields of study (biology, business, communication, economics, history, and sociology) to identify the essential 21st Century competencies, conceptual knowledge, and practices that students in their fields should develop in college, in the introductory course as well as the major. Rather than striving to produce exhaustive or comprehensive lists of learning outcomes for these fields, the project aims to help faculty develop consensus around a limited set of empirically measurable “essential competencies and concepts” that reflect their top priorities for student learning. The faculty are also discussing the current status and future direction of assessment in their field. Pairs of faculty from each field are authoring a white paper synthesizing and expanding upon the work of these panels, which will be made publicly available in early 2016.

It is our hope that this project, through its white papers on learning outcomes and assessment as well as a range of outreach efforts, will spark fruitful department and field-level discussions in each of the six MCL fields. In addition, we are in the early stages of conceptualizing a demonstration project that would focus on one of the fields. In this endeavor, we would partner with one or more assessment firms to develop a new faculty-informed field-specific instrument and field test it alongside existing instruments of generic collegiate skills and measures of instructional practices. The goal of the demonstration project would be to pilot test the new instrument as well as to examine the relationship between subject-specific skills, general collegiate skills, and instructional practices. Improving our understanding of these relationships is crucial in order to craft a sound agenda for using assessment to improve the quality of higher education.

Improving the landscape of assessment in higher education is a significant undertaking, and one that must be approached thoughtfully and deliberately. To this end, MCL is dedicated to the following core principles:
  • Faculty should be at the center of defining and developing transparent learning outcome standards for undergraduates.
  • Students from all backgrounds and institutions should be given a fair opportunity to demonstrate their skills when transferring from one institution to another and when transitioning into the workforce.
  • Measures of student learning should be rigorous and high-quality and should yield data that allow for comparisons over time and between institutions.
  • Assessment tools should be used by institutions on a voluntary basis.
  • Any single measure of student learning should be part of a larger holistic assessment plan.

For more information and updates about the Measuring College Learning Project, visit
Program Director
Richard Arum


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