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Outcomes assessment feasible in Australia

Following the implementation of the engineering component of the OECD Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes Feasibility Study in Australia, Daniel Edwards reports on the successes and lessons learned.

Australia’s participation in the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO) Feasibility Study has resulted in a number of valuable lessons. Importantly, it has shown that the Australian higher education sector is equipped to participate in this type of international study, with implementation running smoothly. Eight Australian universities took part in the international study’s Civil Engineering Strand assessment in 2012.

The AHELO Feasibility Study has been vital in helping to develop processes and explore the practicalities of implementing online-based assessments that offer institutions the ability to explore their outcomes in comparison to those from a vast range of universities across the world. In achieving this, Australia is now well placed to be at the forefront of future initiatives that move assessment of learning outcomes beyond a study of practical feasibility and into an important tool for improving learning and teaching.

AHELO has also proven successful in the sense that students reported not having been exposed previously to the type of applied, integrated problems mirroring their future work that were incorporated into the 90-minute AHELO assessment. Examples of typical feedback from Australian participants include: ‘It made me think and understand that the knowledge I learned from university is being applied in the real world’ and, ‘The tasks make you consider a real project – I may meet the same problems in my future career. It was challenging for me’.

In practical terms, attracting student participants in Australia was a major challenge faced by most universities
involved in the voluntary assessment. Across all eight institutions, the total participation rate for students was
low, at 21 per cent. However, the implementation of the Feasibility Study provided insight into successful models that could be widely incorporated by universities to improve participation in the future.

For example, one Australian university achieved a participation rate of 98 per cent by incorporating the assessment as part of a unit of study. Following the assessment, students were involved in discussions to reflect on their assessment experience and the relationship between their coursework, the skills they expected to employ in the workforce following graduation and professional responsibility related to assurance of educational and practice standards.

From eight universities participating in Australia, nearly 200 students took part in the assessment and almost 100 teaching staff completed the AHELO faculty questionnaire. While results for most institutions are not necessarily representative of the full student cohort, the collection of this data offers insight into the potential use of such information if a full study of this nature is implemented in future.

Australia has further benefited from this project in an international sense. Cooperation between engineering
experts from various countries in developing the assessment has provided an excellent opportunity to strengthen international bonds. Among the researchers involved in the study, the project has required working alongside international colleagues and learning from implementation models and analysis methods employed in the 17 countries participating in the study.

With an all important ‘trial run’ completed, the Australian higher education sector can now be considered one of the pioneers in the international assessment of learning outcomes. ■

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

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