The Learning Outcomes Race: the Value of Self-Reported Gains in Large Research Universities


Throughout the world, measuring “learning outcomes” is viewed by many stakeholders as a relatively new method to judge the “value added” of colleges and universities. The potential to accurately measure learning gains is also a diagnostic tool for institutional self-improvement. This essay discussed the marketisation of learning outcomes tests, and the relative merits of student experience surveys in gauging learning outcomes by analyzing results from the University of California’s Undergraduate Experience Survey (Student Experience in the Research University Survey: SERU-S). The SERU-S includes responses by seniors who entered as freshmen on six educational outcomes self-reports: analytical and critical thinking skills, writing skills, reading and comprehension skills, oral presentation skills, quantitative skills, and skills in a particular field of study. Although self-reported gains are sometimes regarded as having dubious validity compared to so-called “direct measures” of student learning, the analysis of this study reveals the SERU survey design has many advantages, especially in large, complex institutional settings. Without excluding other forms of gauging learning outcomes, we conclude that, designed properly, student surveys offer a valuable and more nuanced alternative in understanding and identifying learning outcomes in the broad tapestry of higher education institutions. We discuss the politics of the learning outcomes race, the validity of standardized tests like the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA), and what we can learn from student surveys like SERU-S. We also suggest there is a tension between what meets the accountability desires of governments and the needs of individual universities focused on self-improvement.

Publication date: 
February 4, 2012
Publication type: 
Journal Articles
The Learning Outcomes Race: the Value of Self-Reported Gains in Large Research Universities by John Aubrey Douglass, Gregg Thomson and Chun-Mei Zhao, Higher Education, February 2012.