Peer Review

Assessment as a Driver of Collegiality and Cooperation in the Commonwealth of Virginia

With fifteen public four-year institutions, twenty-three community colleges, one junior college, and over thirty-five private colleges and universities, Virginia’s higher education system is a model of diversity. In the public sector alone, students may select from small to very large institutions, liberal arts to Research I missions, and vibrant urban to more pastoral suburban and rural campus settings. Virginia’s coordinating board, the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV), provides leadership by focusing on the larger state and system perspective, rather than directing and controlling the daily operation of individual institutions (Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission of the Virginia General Assembly 1995), thus further safeguarding the unique mission and character of each college and university.

At first glance, this kind of coordination affords a level of institutional autonomy that would appear to belie statewide efforts like Virginia’s participation in AAC&U’s LEAP States initiative. However, Virginia’s history of engaging in LEAP-like activities—specifically, the assessment of students’ achievement of essential learning outcomes—not only predates Virginia’s official designation as a LEAP state in 2006, but in fact served as one model that informed and helped to identify the need in the field at the beginning of AAC&U’s VALUE rubric project. This article will briefly describe Virginia’s engagement in LEAP activities using our own institution, Virginia Tech, as an illustrative example of how institutions have found their way to LEAP through student learning outcomes assessment. As part of this presentation, we will also discuss Virginia Tech’s participation in the Virginia Assessment Group (VAG). We believe that VAG holds great promise as a “community of practice” (Lave and Wenger 1991; Wenger 1998) for LEAP work within the commonwealth, one that may serve as a model for other states interested in creating a collegial, less formal venue for LEAP-related conversation and cooperation among institutions.

Assessing Core Competencies in Virginia

As a state, Virginia has required the assessment of student learning since the mid-1980s. Beginning in 1999, Virginia revisited the assessment of student learning under the auspices of the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Higher Education; the commission’s final report delineated six core competencies, “areas of knowledge and skill that supersede majors, disciplines, and institutional missions” (Herndon 2006, 2), for assessment that would be required by all public institutions. These competencies—critical thinking, written communication, oral communication, quantitative reasoning, scientific reasoning, and information technology literacy—were codified in 2000, with institutions developing and implementing core competency assessment plans beginning in 2001 (Herndon 2006).

From community college to flagship institution, all colleges and universities were required to measure and report the results of students’ achievement of these six core competencies to SCHEV; that said, no single definition for the competencies was offered by the commission or Virginia’s higher education leaders at the state level. Instead, each institution developed a working definition and means of measuring each core competency that aligned with its unique mission, culture, and student body. In other words, critical thinking core competency assessment at New River Community College was tailored to its particular characteristics, and would appropriately and logically manifest quite differently than assessment efforts at other institutions such as James Madison, Longwood University, or the College of William & Mary. This approach to assessing the six core competencies—which align nicely with several of the LEAP essential learning outcomes—captured the attention of AAC&U. The effort to assess student learning across very different institutional contexts, simultaneously encouraging transparency in the communication of assessment methods and results while avoiding unproductive interinstitutional comparisons of results, encouraged AAC&U to think of assessment tools useful in this context. VALUE was an effort to provide a shared set of expectations across institutional types. In short, Virginia’s colleges and universities have a history of engaging in important LEAP work through outcomes assessment, whether they realized it or not.

Virginia Tech’s Leap Journey

Virginia Tech’s own path toward deeper engagement in LEAP-related work through assessment is likely emblematic of LEAP participation elsewhere in the commonwealth: somewhat circuitous, but productive and ultimately rewarding. As members of the Office of Academic Assessment (OAA) at Virginia Tech, we are responsible for all the work related to student outcomes assessment at the program level, including reporting on our processes and communicating results to constituents external to the university, such as SCHEV and our regional accrediting body, the Southern Association of Colleges & Universities (SACS). Beginning in 2005, in preparation for reaffirmation of accreditation, OAA began identifying best practices that could shape and improve student learning outcomes assessment at Virginia Tech. AAC&U’s LEAP project, with its articulation of the learning outcomes essential to undergraduate education for the twenty-first century, caught our attention first. The essential learning outcomes became suggested guideposts for the development of Virginia Tech’s quality enhancement plan (QEP), a component of SACS accreditation requirements that requires nothing short of the transformation of student learning or the student learning environment (SACS 2009). In 2008, OAA literally stumbled across the VALUE project at an AAC&U Network for Academic Renewal Working Conference, when a draft of the quantitative reasoning rubric was shared in a session. Immediately recognizing the potential for such rubrics for core competency assessment, OAA became more engaged with the VALUE project as well, with staff serving on a rubric development team and helping faculty pilot test rubrics within their courses for program assessment purposes.

Simultaneously, OAA worked with Virginia Tech’s ePortfolio Initiative to help expand e-portfolio pedagogical practices to include student learning outcomes assessment. Virginia Tech’s LEAP work culminated in the use of four learning outcomes embedded in the broader LEAP essential learning outcomes—inquiry and analysis, information literacy, problem solving, and the integration of learning—and their corresponding rubrics as the foundation upon which its QEP, an innovative, academically-grounded first year experience, was built. All the while, we at Virginia Tech had no idea that Virginia held a special designation as a LEAP state through an agreement with SCHEV. It was not until a lucky search of the AAC&U website that we learned of our “special relationship,” and began to explore ways to better communicate with other Virginia institutions on LEAP issues and ideas. This desire for a collegial venue for cooperation and potential collaboration led us full circle to the Virginia Assessment Group, or VAG.

The Virginia Assessment Group and its Potential for LEAP

VAG is the nation’s oldest continuing professional higher education assessment organization (Culver 2010), with members from both public and private institutions. According to its mission, VAG aims to promote quality higher education through assessment and institutional practices in all commonwealth post-secondary institutions; serve as a network for communication and collaboration among institutions of higher education, state and federal agencies, and accreditation bodies; offer professional development opportunities; and serve as a forum for the exchange of ideas. Others have already characterized VAG as a community of practice (Culver 2010; Herndon 2006); it is a group of people who share a concern or a passion for assessment and learn from one another how to do it better (Wenger 2006), primarily through its annual conference. With this conference, VAG not only provides professional development and networking opportunities, but also promotes the scholarship of assessment by providing a venue for presenting and discussing work in student learning outcomes assessment.

It was at the 2009 VAG conference that Virginia Tech first presented on its work assessing LEAP essential learning outcomes with the VALUE rubrics, a session that spurred multiple interinstitutional conversations about synergies between LEAP, SCHEV core competency assessment, and accreditation. As interest developed, the VAG board invited AAC&U Vice President for Engagement, Inclusion, and Success Susan Albertine to speak at the 2010 conference. As leader of the LEAP States Initiative, Albertine provided the national context for the project, discussed other LEAP States models, and suggested ways VAG and AAC&U could collaborate to shape and promote LEAP work in the commonwealth. In March 2011, representatives from four other Virginia institutions—the College of William and Mary, J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College, Old Dominion University, and Virginia Commonwealth University—joined Virginia Tech at the first LEAP States Summit, where the Virginia team had a chance to hear from other states, including both successes and challenges experienced while engaging in LEAP work. The LEAP States Summit served as a catalyst for further discussions and has resulted in at least one joint VAG-AAC&U networking opportunity in the spring of 2011.

Though nascent, the conversation between AAC&U and VAG holds great promise for creating significant connections for improving student learning through meaningful assessment of the essential learning outcomes. Through VAG, these connections can spur cooperation between different institutional levels (e.g., community college, master’s level institution, liberal arts, Research I) in both the public and private sector. As these multiple relationships mature, it is our hope and expectation that Virginia become a model for the creative and productive exchange of ideas and collaboration as we strive to provide the students in the commonwealth with exceptional undergraduate experiences.


Culver, Steven M. 2010. “Educational Quality, Outcomes Assessment, and Policy Change: The Virginia Example.” International Education 40 (1): 6–22.

Herndon, Craig. 2006. Peer Review and Organizational Learning: Improving the Assessment of Student Learning. Research & Practice in Assessment 1 (1): 1–7.

Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission of the Virginia General Assembly. 1995. Review of the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia.

Lave, Jean., and Etienne. Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. 2009. Principles of Accreditation: Foundations for Quality Enhancement. Decatur, GA: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.

Wenger, Etienne. 1998. Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Wenger, Etienne. 2006. Communities of Practice: A Brief Introduction.

Kathryne Drezek McConnell is the assistant director of the Office of Academic Assessment at Virginia Tech; and president-elect of the Virginia Assessment Group Board;
Ray Van Dyke is the director of the Office of Academic Assessment at Virginia Tech; and member, representing public four-year institutions, of the Virginia Assessment Group Board; Steve Culver is the associate director of the Office of Academic Assessment at Virginia Tech.

Previous Issues