Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


Consider professionalism as a learning goal

Posted on September 23, 2018 at 10:35 AM

A recent Inside Higher Ed piece, “The Contamination of Student Assessment” by Jay Sterling Silver, argued that behaviors such as class attendance and class participation shouldn’t be factored into grades because grades should be “unadulterated measurements of knowledge and skills that we represent them to be—and that employers and graduate admissions committees rely on them to be.” In other words, these behaviors are unrelated to key learning goals.

He’s got a point; a grade should reflect achievement of key learning goals. (That’s what competency-based education tries to achieve, as I discussed in a blog several years ago.)  But I behaviors like coming to class, submitting work on time, giving assignments one’s best effort, and participating in class discussions are important. They fall under what I call professionalism: traits that include coming to work on time and prepared to work, dependably completing assigned work thoroughly and on time, giving one’s work one’s best effort, and managing one’s time.

Surveys of employers confirm that these are important traits in the people they hire. Every few years, for example, Hart Research Associates conducts a survey for AAC&U on how well employers think college graduates are prepared on a number of key learning outcomes. The 2018 survey added two learning outcomes that weren’t in previous surveys:

  • Self-motivated: ability to take initiative and be proactive
  • Work independently: set priorities, manage time and deadlines

Of the 15 learning outcomes in the 2018 survey, these were tied for #4 in importance by hiring managers.

So I think the answer is to add professionalism as an additional learning goal. Of course “professionalism” isn’t a well-stated learning goal; it’s a category. I leave it up to college and program faculty to decide how best to articulate what forms of professionalism are most important to their students and prospective employers.

Then an assignment like a library research paper might have three learning goals—information literacy, writing, and professionalism—and be graded on all three. Professionalism might be demonstrated by how well students followed the directions, whether the assignment was turned in on time, and whether the student went above and beyond the bare minimum requirements for the assignment.

Professionalism, by the way, isn’t just a skill and isn’t just an attitude. It’s a combination of both, similar to what Arthur Costa and Bea Kallick call habits of mind, which include things like persisting, managing impulsivity, taking responsible risks, and striving for accuracy. One of the reasons I’m not a fan of Bloom’s taxonomy is that it doesn’t really address habits of mind, which—as evidenced by Hart’s new survey—are becoming increasingly important learning goals of a college education.

Lessons from the Election for Higher Education

Posted on November 28, 2016 at 7:25 AM

If you share my devastation at the results of the U.S. presidential election and its implications for our country and our world, and if you are struggling to understand what has happened and wondering what you can do as a member of the higher education community, this blog post is for you. I don’t have answers, of course, but I have some ideas.


Why did Trump get so many votes? While the reasons are complex, and people will be debating them for years, there seem to be two fundamental factors. One can be summed up in that famous line from Bill Clinton’s campaign: It’s the economy, stupid.  Jed Kolko at found that people who voted for Trump were more likely to feel under economic threat, worried about the future of their jobs.


The other reason is education. Nate Silver at has tweeted that Clinton won all 18 states where an above average share of the population has advanced degrees, but she lost 29 of the other 32.  Education and salary are highly correlated, but Nate Silver has found signs that education appears to be a stronger predictor of who voted for Trump than salary.


Why is education such a strong predictor of how people voted? Here’s where we need more research, but I’m comfortable speculating that reasons might include any of the following:

  • People without a college education have relatively few prospects for economic security. In my book Five Dimensions of Quality I noted that the Council of Foreign Relations found that, “going back to the 1970s, all net job growth has been in jobs that require at least a bachelor’s degree.” I also noted a statistic from Anthony Carnevale and his colleagues: “By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs will require postsecondary education and training, up from 28 percent in 1973.”
  • Colleges do help students learn to think critically: to distinguish credible evidence from what I call “incredible” evidence, to weigh evidence carefully when making difficult decisions, and to make decisions based more on good quality evidence than on emotional response.
  • College-educated citizens are more likely to have attended quality good schools from kindergarten on, learning to think critically not just in college but throughout their schooling.
  • College-educated citizens are more optimistic because their liberal arts studies give them the open-mindedness and flexibility to handle changing times, including changing careers.

We do have a tremendous divide in this country—an education divide—and it is growing. While college degree holders have always earned more than those without a college degree, the income disparity has grown; college graduates now earn 80% more than high school graduates, up from 40% in the 1970s.


If we want a country that offers economic security, whose citizens feel a sense of optimism, whose citizens make evidence-informed decisions, and whose citizens are prepared for changes in their country and their lives, we need to work on closing the education divide by helping as many people as possible get a great postsecondary education.


What can we do?

  1. Welcome the underprepared. They are the students who really need our help in obtaining not only economic security but the thinking skills that are the hallmark of a college education and a sense of optimism about their future. The future of our country is in their hands.
  2. Make every student want to come back, as Ken O’Donnell has said, until they complete their degree or credential. Every student we lose hurts his or her economic future and our country.
  3. Encourage actively what Ernest Boyer called the scholarship of application: using research to solve real-life problems such as regional social and economic issues.
  4. Partner with local school systems and governments to improve local grade schools. Many regions of the country need new businesses, but new businesses usually want to locate in communities with good schools for their employees and their families.
  5. Create more opportunities for students to listen to and learn from others with different backgrounds and perspectives. Many colleges seek to attract international students and encourage students to study abroad. I’d like to go farther. Do we encourage our international students to share their backgrounds and experiences with our American students, both in relevant classes and in co-curricular settings? Do we encourage returning study abroad students to share what they learned with their peers? Do we encourage our students to consider not only a semester abroad but a semester at another U. S. college in a different part of the country?
  6. Create more opportunities for students to learn about the value of courtesy, civility, respect, compassion, and kindness and how to practice these in their lives and careers.

A Closing Thought for 2015

Posted on December 29, 2015 at 4:40 PM

A wonderful quote from Frank Bruni in "The Elite Squeeze" in the March 30, 2015, issue of Time:

"Despite all the challenges facing higher education in America, from mounting student debt to grade inflation and erratic standards, our system is rightly the world's envy, and not just because our most revered universities remain on the cutting edge of research and attract talent from around the globe. We also have a plenitude and variety of settings for learning that are unrivaled."

This year I made professional visits to universities and quality assurance agencies in several countries across the globe. Every visit left me profoundly grateful to be working in the United States. In one country, students at the public universities were demonstrating because the quality of education they were receiving was so inferior to that offered by more expensive private universities. Another country has no legitimate quality assurance agency for its higher education institutions, making it extremely difficult for universities there to establish the credibility of their degree programs on the world market. In two countries I visited, there is no freedom of thought--criticize the government at your peril. In one country, college is available only to students who complete an appropriate college preparation curriculum in grade school--there are no opportunities for working adults to get a better education and thereby advance themselves. And some countries offer only a limited array of programs of study.

In the United States, in contrast, if you want a post-secondary education, you can get it. No matter what your background, or your prior education, or what you are interested in learning, there is a college that can meet your needs and give you a good quality education.

So as 2015 draws to a close, I feel very blessed to be part of the United States' admittedly messy and imperfect but plentiful array of higher education opportunities.

I hope you are in the midst of a wonderful holiday season and that you have a great 2016.

Why is American higher education under fire?

Posted on August 23, 2015 at 7:35 AM

There are three fundamental reasons:


Economic development. The U.S. is increasingly dependent on college-educated workers to drive its economy. The proportion of U.S. jobs requiring post-secondary education or training is growing from about 35% in 1973 to a projected 65% in 2020. All net jobs growth since the 1970s has been in jobs requiring at least a bachelor’s degree.


Affordability and return on investment. Eighty percent of today’s students are going to college to “be very well off financially,” up from just 40% in the 1970s. They want their investment in college to pay off. It generally does; the average college “wage premium” today is 80%, up from 40% in the 1970s. But averages don’t reflect everyone’s experience, and today 40% of 25-year-olds have student loan debt, up from about 25% ten years ago. When students and their families pay so much and incur so much debt, they start to question the value of anything that doesn’t seem to them to contribute to that return on investment, like gen ed requirements. (I’m not criticizing the liberal arts here at all, just pointing out that we don’t always communicate their value well.)


The changing American college student. Today 43% of U.S. undergraduates are over 24 years old, and only 25% attend a residential college full-time. Today’s entering students are generally less prepared to succeed in college and increasingly “stop out” and “swirl” on their way to a college degree.


Why isn’t American higher education addressing these forces better? And what can we do to meet these needs better? I share some ideas in the last chapter of my book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability, and at the beginning of the book I give the sources of all the figures I've quoted here. I’ll be talking about all this in my September 10 plenary at the Drexel Regional Assessment Conference. I hope to see you there!

Encouraging great teaching

Posted on March 16, 2015 at 8:10 AM

One of my favorite chapters in my book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability is “Why Is This So Hard?” It was my “venting chapter,” with a pretty long list of the barriers to advancing in quality, and it was very cathartic to write.


One item on that list is succinct: The money’s not there. A new report by Third Way states the issue beautifully: “Federal policy incentivizes research first, second, and third—and student instruction last.” It goes on to explain, “For every $100 the federal government spends on university-led research, it spends twenty-four cents on teaching innovation at universities.” Its conclusion? “If one took its cues entirely on the federal government, the conclusion would be that colleges exist to conduct research and publish papers with student instruction as an afterthought.”


One professor at a regional comprehensive university put it to me this way: “I know I could be a better teacher. But my promotions are based on the research dollars I bring in and my publications, so that’s where I have to focus all my time. As long as my student evaluations are decent, there’s no incentive or reward for me to try to improve my teaching, and any time I spend on that is time taken away from my research, which is where the rewards are.”


The one bright spot here is that more and more colleges and universities are recognizing the need to invest in helping faculty improve their teaching. The last 20 years have seen a growth in “teaching learning centers” designed to do this along with other incentives and support, such as those at the University of Michigan reported by the Chronicle of Higher Education. But so far we are only scratching the surface. Colleges, universities, and government policymakers all need to do more to put their money where their mouth is, actively encouraging and supporting the great teaching and learning that is supposed to be higher education’s fundamental purpose.

Are our courses and programs appropriately rigorous?

Posted on January 3, 2015 at 7:50 AM

It was decades ago that someone first told me higher education’s dirty little secret: higher education is the one commodity where the consumer wants the least for his or her money. According to the latest CIRP freshman survey, the most common reason first-year students are going to college is to get a better job. A lot of students want the credential but not necessarily the learning that goes with it.

Unfortunately, with recent pushes to get students to persist and graduate, plus the efforts of some private colleges to avoid a “death spiral” of declining enrollments and revenues, I see way too many colleges today playing into this. Some examples I’ve seen here and there over the last couple of years:

• Course numbering systems that are meaningless; 200-level courses are no more advanced than 100-level courses; 300- and 400-level courses are no more advanced than 100- and 200-level courses. First-year students and seniors are in the same courses.

• Community colleges that let students take any course without any prerequisites, including an internship in their very first semester

• Associate degrees that can be completed with all 100-level courses; more advanced study at the 200-level is not required

• Graduate programs that offer graduate credit for courses that should be undergraduate prerequisites

• Courses with undergraduate curricula that earn graduate credit (for example, a first-year business statistics course that’s part of an MBA program)

• Degree “programs” at the associate, bachelor’s, and master’s levels that are simply collections of elective courses, without coherence. As I’ve said many times, a collection of courses is not a program.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way to turn this around. Accreditors and state higher education agencies do their best, but they don’t have the capacity to carefully examine every course and program curriculum. (Some specialized accreditors do have this capacity, because they examine limited numbers of programs in depth.) The answer is, instead, making this a matter of integrity throughout the higher education community, a national priority, and a focus of national conversations. The Degree Qualifications Profile can be a starting point for the conversation, but at this point many colleges are still ignoring it.

In my book Five Dimensions of Quality: A Common Sense Guide to Accreditation and Accountability, the first dimension is Relevance and the third is Focus and Aspiration. Both dimensions call for rigorous curricula that give our students the education they need.

We really ARE in the midst of big changes

Posted on October 8, 2013 at 8:20 PM

I’ve been doing a lot of reading this year—not just Inside Higher Ed and the Chronicle but also links provided by the Lumina Foundation’s daily e-mail, which is great for getting a handle on what the world outside higher education is thinking. In case you don’t have time to keep up on all this (and who does these days?), here are some of the big ideas I’m seeing:

• Don’t build any more lecture halls. Whatever is presented in a lecture can be presented online, and probably better, with interactive engagement. Then face-to-face class time can be used for more interaction and deepening understanding and skill development. The buzz word for all this is “flipped classroom.”

• The push to compare tuition against post-degree salary isn’t going away. Will it further devalue work in the arts and social services, pushing students away from considering careers in these fields? Will most colleges eventually offer only degrees that are both cheap to offer and well-paying resulting in, say, a surplus of forensic accountants but a shortage of forensic nurses?

• The push to move more courses online isn’t going away either. Will it leave students with an out-of-balance set of skills? Every student needs skills in teamwork, leadership, and making an effective face-to-face oral presentation before a group—skills that are hard to develop in an online environment. Also high on employers’ lists are creative, innovative thinking—challenging though not impossible to teach online.

• The push to move more programs completely online also isn’t going away. Will this price those programs that require face-to-face interaction or hands-on work out of reach of most students? Yes, many business, technology, and social science programs can be offered online, but what about teaching? nursing? social work? chemistry? environmental biology? mechanical engineering? musicians? hospitality management? theater professionals? Will the required face-to-face, studio, and laboratory experiences push the costs of these programs out of reach of most students, leading to shortages of well-prepared professionals in these disciplines?