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Beyond feasibility – possible futures for learning outcomes assessment

Sarah Richardson reflects on the momentum behind the assessment of student learning outcomes following the completion of the OECD’s Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes Feasibility Study.

The Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) Feasibility Study is a major achievement. Implemented between 2010 and 2012 by a consortium of organisations led by ACER, it was the first time that international testing on this scale had been undertaken in higher education. Around 23 000 students across 250 institutions in 17 countries took a test in one of 12 languages and contextual information was also collected from 5000 university teachers. A great deal has been learnt from AHELO.The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development is due to publish a three-volume repor t on findings in early 2013.

In the meantime, what are the implications for higher education institutions and governments around the world? What are the key drivers which the AHELO Feasibility Study has highlighted?

First, the rising demand from students, institutions, employers and governments to collect data on what students know and can do at the end of their degrees is now apparent. Data on learning outcomes is essential for informing improvements in teaching and learning. It is clear that the assessment of student learning outcomes is on track to become a core method of determining institutional quality into the future, balancing out the current over-reliance on research metrics.

Second, in an increasingly globalised and interconnected world the need for institutions and countries to be able to compare student learning outcomes against international benchmarks is evident.The growth in cross- border degree programs, institutional partnerships and international education feeds this demand.There are ever greater calls for assessment instruments which can be developed and implemented across countries and languages.The ability to deliver instruments online aids the realisation of this vision.

Third, the interest in collecting information on both discipline-specific and generic learning outcomes is
clear. In the AHELO Feasibility Study three assessments were developed – Civil Engineering, Generic Skills and Economics.This is just a beginning. Similar assessments could easily be developed in a range of science, business, medical and engineering disciplines. Depending on demand, generic skills components could be included in disciplinar y assessments or measured separately.

Fourth, the need for higher education institutions to use robust and scientifically validated assessment instrumentation is clear. It is essential that sound assessment practices are used throughout the student lifecycle – from first semester of first year to graduate assessments. Robust instruments ensure that data collected is reliable and valid, and that the students whose skills and knowledge meet the desired level are recognised for their excellence. Achieving this outcome requires the involvement of expert test developers.They can work with institutions to develop assessment frameworks and instrumentation, and train teaching staff in the techniques required.

With these four key findings in mind, how do we move forwards? To further develop learning assessments in higher education, all that is required is the collaboration of a group of institutions within or across countries, a clear definition of purpose and remit, and the expertise to bring this to fruition.The only question remains – who is going to be first? ■

Find out more:
Further information about AHELO is available from <www.oecd.org/edu/ahelo> and <www.acer.edu.au/highereducation>

RD

About the author

Dr Sarah Richardson is the Research Director of ACER India and leads educational research projects in a number of countries that focus on primary, secondary and tertiary levels of education.

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View selected works of Sarah Richardson

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