Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


General education as an economic driver?

Posted on October 19, 2019 at 8:25 AM

At a recent workshop on general education in a region with low educational and income levels. I pointed out that general education can be a driver of economic development.

Generally speaking, people with more education earn more money. They spend more, pay more taxes, and other ways contribute to regional economic development.


We also know that college students are most likely to drop out of college during their first year or two—when they’re taking gen ed courses. This means gen ed courses can have a significant impact on degree completion and therefore income and regional economic development.

We also know that students are more likely to persist when they’re actively engaged in their learning and see relevance in their learning.

This means that what is taught in gen ed courses and how they’re taught can have a significant impact on degree completion and therefore income and regional and economic development. Focus on teaching transferrable thinking skills more than memorized knowledge, and use active learning strategies rather than having students sit passively to a lecture, and you may make an important contribution to your region’s economic development.

Is It Time to Abandon the Term "Liberal Arts?

Posted on August 20, 2017 at 6:35 AM

Scott Jaschick at Inside Higher Ed just wrote an article tying together two studies showing that many higher ed stakeholders don’t understand—and therefore misinterpret—the term liberal arts.

And who can blame them? It’s an obtuse term that I’d bet many in higher ed don’t understand either. When I researched my 2014 book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability, I learned that the term liberal comes from liber, the Latin word for free. In the Middle Ages in Europe, a liberal arts education was for the free individual, as opposed to an individual obliged to enter a particular trade or profession. That paradigm simply isn’t relevant today.

Today the liberal arts are those studies that address knowledge, skills, and competencies that cross disciplines, yielding a broadly-educated, well-rounded individual. Many people use the term liberal arts and sciences or simply arts and sciences to try to make clear that the liberal arts comprise study of the sciences as well as the arts and humanities. The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U), a leading advocate of liberal arts education, refers to liberal arts as liberal education. Given today’s political climate, that may not have been a good decision!

So what might be a good synonym for the liberal arts? I confess I don’t have a proposal. Arts and sciences is one option, but I’d bet many stakeholders don’t understand that this includes humanities and social sciences, and this term doesn’t convey the value studying these things. Some of the terms I think would resonate with the public are broad, well-rounded, transferrable, and thinking skills. But I’m not sure how to combine these terms meaningfully and succinctly.

What we need here is evidence-informed decision-making, including surveys and focus groups of various higher education stakeholders to see what resonates with them. I hope AAC&U, as a leading advocate of liberal arts education, might consider taking on a rebranding effort including stakeholder research. But if you have any ideas, let me know!

Meaningful assessment of AA/AS transfer programs

Posted on July 9, 2016 at 7:45 AM

I often describe the teaching-learning-assessment process as a four-step cycle:

1. Clear learning outcomes

2. A curriculum and pedagogies designed to provide students with enough learning opportunities to achieve those outcomes

3. Assessment of those outcomes

4. Use of assessment results to improve the other parts of the cycle: learning outcomes, curriculum, pedagogies, and assessment

I also often point out that, if faculty are struggling to figure out how to assess something, the problem is often not assessment per se but the first two steps. After all, if you have clear outcomes and you’re giving students ample opportunity to achieve them, you should be grading students on their achievement of those outcomes, and there’s your assessment evidence. So the root cause of assessment struggles is often poorly articulated learning outcomes, a poorly designed curriculum, or both.

I see this a lot in the transfer AA/AS degrees offered by community colleges. As I explained in my June 20 blog entry, these degrees, designed for transfer into a four-year college major, typically consist of 42-48 credits of general education courses plus 12-18 credits related to the major. The general education and major-related components are often what I call “Chinese menu” curricula: Choose one course from Column A, two from Column B, and so on. (Ironically, few Chinese have this kind of menu any more, but people my age remember them.)


The problem with assessing these programs is the second step of the cycle, as I explained in my June 20 blog. in many cases these aren’t really programs; they’re simply collections of courses without coherence or progressive rigor. That makes it almost impossible both to define meaningful program learning outcomes (the first step of the cycle) or assess them (the third step of the cycle).


How can you deal with this mess? Here are my suggestions.


1. Clearly define what a meaningful “program” is. As I explained in my June 20 blog entry, many community colleges are bound by state or system definitions of a “program” that aren’t meaningful. Regardless of the definition to which you may be bound, I think it makes the most sense to think of the entire AA/AS degree as the program, with the 12-18 credits beyond gen ed requirements as a concentration, specialization, track or emphasis of the program.

2. Identify learning outcomes for both the degree and the concentration, recognizing that there should often be a relation between the two. In gen ed courses, students develop important competencies such as writing, analysis, and information literacy. In their concentration, they may achieve some of those competencies at a deeper or broader level, or they may achieve additional outcomes. For example, students in social science concentrations may develop stronger information literacy and analysis skills than students in other concentrations, while students in visual arts concentrations may develop visual communication skills in addition to the competencies they learn in gen ed.

Some community colleges offer AA/AS degrees in which students complete gen ed requirements plus 12-18 credits of electives. In these cases, students should work with an advisor to identify their own,unique program/concentration learning outcomes and select courses that will help them achieve those outcomes.

3. Use the following definition of a program (or concentration) learning outcome: Every student in the program (or concentration) takes at least two courses with learning activities that help him or her achieve the program learning outcome. This calls for fairly broad rather than course-specific learning outcomes.

If you’re struggling to find outcomes that cross courses, start by looking at course syllabi for any common themes in course learning outcomes. Also think about why four-year colleges want students to take these courses. What are student learning, beyond content, that will help them succeed in upper division courses in the major? In a pre-engineering program, for example, I’d like to think that the various science and math courses students take help them graduate with stronger scientific reasoning and quantitative skills than students in non-STEM concentrations.

4. Limit the number of learning outcomes; quality is more important than quantity here. Concentrations of 12-18 credits might have just one or two.


5. Also consider limiting your course options by consolidating Chinese-menu options into more focused pathways, which we are learning improve student success and completion. I’m intrigued by what Alexandra Waugh calls “meta-majors”: focused pathways that prepare students for a cluster of four-year college majors, such as health sciences, engineering, or the humanities, rather than just one.

6. Review your curricula to make sure that every student, regardless of the courses he or she elects, will graduate with a sufficiently rigorous achievement of every program (and concentration) learning outcome. An important principle here: There should be at least one course in which students can demonstrate achievement of the program learning outcome at the level of rigor expected of an associate degree holder prepared to begin junior-level work. In many cases, an entry-level course cannot be sufficiently rigorous; your program or concentration needs at least one course that cannot be taken the first semester. If you worry that prerequisites may be a barrier to completion, consider Passaic County Community College’s approach, described in my June 20 blog.

7. Finally, you’ve got meaningful program learning outcomes and a curriculum designed to help students achieve them at an appropriate level of rigor, so you're ready to assess those outcomes. The course(s) you’ve identified in the last step are where you can assess student achievement of the outcomes. But one additional challenge faces community colleges: many students transfer before taking this “capstone” course. So also identify a program/concentration “cornerstone” course: a key course that students often take before they transfer that helps students begin to achieve one or more key program/concentration learning outcomes. Here you can assess whether students are on track to achieve the program/concentration learning outcome, though at this point they probably won’t be where you want them by the end of the sophomore year.

Making a liberal arts degree relevant and employable

Posted on February 10, 2016 at 8:10 AM

One of the reasons I’m a passionate advocate of the liberal arts is because my own undergraduate liberal arts degree has served me so well…but then again, it was an unusual interdisciplinary program. Hopkins coded its liberal arts courses according to area of study: natural sciences courses were coded N, social and behavior sciences courses were coded S, humanities H. My Quantitative Studies major required a couple of entry level courses (probability and statistics) plus electives chosen from courses coded Q, with a certain number in the upper division.


I had a ball! In addition to math, I took courses in engineering, physics, economics, computer science, and psychology, where I discovered an unexpected passion for educational testing and measurement that led me to graduate study and my work today. At the same time, while Hopkins didn’t offer formal minors, I earned 18 credits in English. 


Memories of all this came back to me as I read Matthew Sigelman’s piece in Inside Higher Ed on creating liberal arts programs that combine foundational liberal arts skills such as writing and critical thinking with the entry level technical skills that employers seek. My knowledge of statistical analyses and computer programming got me my first positions. But my writing skills and interdisciplinary studies helped me move out of them, into a career in higher education that has required working with people from all kinds of academic backgrounds, speaking a bit of their language, and applying the concepts I’ve learned to their disciplines. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the combination of technical skills, writing skills, and broad liberal arts foundation that Sigelman advocates.


So here’s an idea. Many colleges today label “writing-intensive” courses with a W and require students to take a certain number of them. Why not do something similar with other skills that today’s employers are seeking? Label leadership- and teamwork-intensive courses L, data-intensive courses D, problem-solving -intensive courses P, technology-intensive courses T, analysis-intensive courses A, ethics-intensive courses E, and so on. Develop clear institutional guidelines on how to qualify for each label; some courses might earn multiple labels. Then encourage students in the liberal arts to take courses with whatever labels best fit their career interests—perhaps as an interdisciplinary major, perhaps as a minor, or perhaps as electives in a major or general education.


This will only work, of course, if curricula have enough flexibility to allow students to fit these courses in. But that’s a solvable challenge, and I think this is an idea worth considering.

Rethinking the assessment of gen ed and institution-wide learning outcomes

Posted on July 31, 2015 at 8:25 AM

I’ve been working with a number of colleges on assessing their gen ed or institution-wide learning outcomes, and concluded that what many are doing is way too complicated. Typically colleges decide to use rubrics (often the AAC&U VALUE rubrics or a modification of them) to assess gen ed or institution-wide learning outcomes. Then they have faculty submit samples of student work. Then one or more groups of faculty use the rubrics to score the student work samples.


If this strategy works, there’s nothing wrong with it. But I’m seeing too many colleges where this process isn’t working well.


  • At some colleges, faculty submitting samples are largely disconnected from the assessment process, so they don’t feel ownership. Assessment is something “done” to them.
  • It’s hard to come up with a rubric that’s meaningfully applicable to student work taken from many different courses. So, at some colleges, the rubric results don’t have meaning to many faculty. That makes it hard to use the rubric results to make meaningful, broad improvements in teaching and learning.
  • At many of these colleges, student work samples are submitted into an assessment data management system. These systems, chosen and implemented wisely, can be great time-savers. But too often I’m seeing faculty required, rather than encouraged, to use these systems. They’re required to use rubrics, or to use rubrics with a particular format, or to report on what they’ve done in a particular way—all of which may not fit well with what they’re doing. Square pegs are being pushed into round holes.
  • Using standard assessment structures encourages comparisons that may be inappropriate. Should we really compare students’ critical thinking skills in literature courses with those in chemistry courses?


What I’m increasingly recommending is a bottom-up, qualitative approach to assessing gen ed and institution-wide learning outcomes. Let faculty in each course or program develop a rubric or other assessment that is meaningful to them—that reflects college-wide learning outcomes through the lens of what they are trying to teach. That kind of rubric can be used both for grading and for broader assessment.

(An important caveat here: I said "course" and not "class." Faculty teaching sections of the same course should be collaborating to identify and implement an appropriate strategy to assess key gen ed or institutional learning outcomes in all sections of the course.)

Then have a faculty group review the reports of these assessments holistically and qualitatively for recurring themes. I’ve done this myself, and things always pop out. At one college I visited, students repeatedly struggled to integrate their learning—pull the pieces together and see the big picture. At another, students repeatedly struggled with analysis, especially with data. The findings, gleaned from human rather than system review, were clear and “actionable”—they could lead to institution-wide discussions and decisions on strategies to improve students’ integration or data analysis skills.

So if a standardized, centralized approach to assessing gen ed or institutional outcomes is working for your institution, don’t mess with success. But if it seems cumbersome, time consuming, and not all that helpful, consider a less structured, decentralized approach.


For more thoughts on assessing institution-wide and gen ed learning outcomes, see my blog posts on tips for assessing gen ed learning outcomes, tips on assessing institution-wide learning outcomes and the various levels of assessment: class, course, program, and gen ed.

Five Big Ideas about Assessing General Education

Posted on May 23, 2015 at 9:15 AM

I recently had the pleasure to speak to faculty and administrators at a college in New England on assessing their gen ed curriculum. Here are the five big ideas I shared with them.


Big Idea #1: Gen Ed Assessment is Hard! It’s harder than assessing student learning in programs (majors) or individual courses, for several reasons.

  • American colleges and universities are frankly embarrassed of their gen ed requirements. The requirements are typically buried down deep on the college’s website or in its catalog, and academic advisors typically talk about gen ed requirements as something to “get out of the way.”
  • There’s often no ownership of gen ed. Who’s in charge of the humanities or social sciences requirement, for example, making sure it delivers on its intentions?
  • Gen ed outcomes are often fuzzy, and it’s hard to assess fuzzy goals meaningfully.
  • Gen ed assessment requires collaboration, and many colleges operate in a culture of isolation.


Big Idea #2: It’s All about Goals. I take gen ed learning outcomes very seriously. They are a promise that the college is making: Every undergraduate who completes the gen ed requirements, no matter which gen ed courses or sections he or she has chosen, is competent at every gen ed outcome. But a lot of gen ed curricula aren’t designed to ensure this. Yes, many students graduate competent in all gen ed learning outcomes, but it’s possible for some students to fall through the net and graduate without some of these important competencies.


Big Idea #3: Gen Ed Assessment Shouldn’t Be All that Different from What You’re Already Doing. If you’re teaching it and grading it, you’re assessing it. Gen ed assessment is often the biggest struggle for faculty who haven’t been addressing key gen ed competencies in their courses.

Big Idea #4: Keep This as Easy as You Can.

  • Start at the end and work backwards; if your gen ed curriculum has a sophomore or junior capstone, start there. The capstone projects should demonstrate achievement of a number of gen ed outcomes. If the projects show great communication, critical thinking, and information literacy skills (or whatever your gen ed outcomes are), you’re done!
  • Look for the biggest return on investment. At many colleges, the 80-20 rule applies: 80% of undergraduates enroll in only 20% of gen ed course offerings. Start by assessing student learning in those courses.
  • Keep your gen ed outcomes and curriculum lean. The more learning outcomes you have and the more courses you offer, the more work you have to keep everything updated, aligned, and assessed. I’m also seeing research that lean community college gen ed curricula actually increase student success rates.

Big Idea #5: Make Accountability Pressures Work for You. Rather than view calls for accountability as a threat, look on them as an opportunity.

  • Demonstrate that you are doing what everyone wants: for students to get the best possible education.
  • Tell the world how good you are and, when assessment results are disappointing, what you’re doing to get even better.
  • Show that you use your limited resources wisely—that the investments by students, taxpayers, and donors are making a difference, in a cost-effective way.
  • Show that you are keeping your promises, especially that your students are indeed learning what you promise.

A personal encounter with the value of the liberal arts

Posted on February 25, 2014 at 9:00 AM

I recently returned from my first-ever visit to the Middle East, working with a university in one of the small oil-rich countries that ring the Persian Gulf. While my visit was brief, it was a life-changing experience for me.

One of the powerful lessons of my visit was the diversity of the Middle East and Muslims. The faculty at the university I visited are from 55 countries, most but not all from the Muslim world. I was struck by the diversity of their backgrounds and perspectives. Seeing them work together was a forceful reminder that, just as one cannot stereotype Christians (or people of any other faith), one cannot stereotype Muslims.


The other powerful lesson of my visit was how ignorant Americans are about the Middle East and Islam. When I told (college-educated) friends and family about my pending visit, their questions were invariably, “Is it safe?” and “What do you have to wear?” (The answers, for this particular country? “Safer than most of the U.S.” and “Business attire that covers my elbows and knees – no scarf.”;)

One of my most memorable experiences was a conversation with a young man who dreams of coming to the United States and starting a business that he’s already planned out. (Yes, America is still viewed as the land of opportunity.) But he is a Palestinian, whose family is originally from the Gaza Strip, and therefore has no passport. (He was born in the country I visited but is not a citizen of it.) Does he fit the view most Americans have of Palestinians?

Why are Americans so uninformed? Part of the reason, I think, is that we are so geographically isolated. The Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are indeed big ponds, and it is expensive and time-consuming for people here to travel to other parts of the world. I envy Europeans who can travel to many other countries as quickly and easily as Americans might travel to the Caribbean.

But the other reason, I think, is that too few college students today are graduating with a solid liberal arts education, the kind that gives them the truly broad, global understanding and perspectives that the United States needs. Yes, most of the colleges I work with have a general education learning outcome or requirement on “diversity” or something “global,” but how do students achieve those outcomes? Are they studying what the United States really needs them to learn, or are they studying what the faculty want to teach?


Imagine what the world would be like if more Americans had that broad global perspective, even if they never work with someone from the Middle East. The liberal arts—done right—can change lives and society and the world even if it doesn’t directly impact one’s career.

General Education at Community Colleges

Posted on November 10, 2013 at 6:20 AM

Over the last few months I’ve visited a number of community colleges across the country, and I’m seeing some common themes emerge. While my visits are purportedly about assessment, the conversations invariably turn to learning outcomes and curriculum design. (And this doesn’t surprise me; I’ve been saying for years that, if your college is struggling with assessment, the cause is likely either unclear goals or curricula that aren’t designed to help students achieve those goals.) A lot of community college curricula are constrained by state requirements but, if you have some flexibility, here’s the advice I’ve found myself giving most frequently on community college gen ed curricula:

1. Limit the number of gen ed learning outcomes. Two examples: the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board stipulates just six; the Community College of Baltimore County has just four. If you have a lot of learning outcomes, you have a much harder time designing a curriculum so that every student achieves each one of them, and you have a lot more work assessing them.

2. Keep your gen ed requirements simple and traditional: communication, math, social sciences, natural sciences, humanities, fine and performing arts. Not exciting, but these courses have the best chance of transferring and meeting gen ed requirements at four-year colleges.

3. Keep your gen ed course offerings limited and traditional: Introduction to Biology, Introduction to Psychology, U.S. Government, 20th Century American Literature. Again, these courses have the best chance of transferring and meeting gen ed requirements at four-year colleges. Limiting the number of offerings can lead to huge savings in faculty time in course planning, monitoring/review, and assessment. Traditional doesn’t mean boring or irrelevant, of course. You can focus a 20th century American literature course on works particularly likely to engage your students and meet their interests and needs.

4. Address each gen ed learning outcome in more than one core requirement. Some community colleges require that every gen ed course address critical thinking, for example, and some require quantitative skills to be addressed in gen ed social science courses as well as in math courses. This helps ensure that, no matter how long students enroll at your college or what they take, they’ll leave with stronger skills than when they arrived.