For Immediate Release

David Tritelli
Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs
202-888-0811 (office)

Nearly 80% of Colleges Now Have A Broad Set of Learning Outcomes for All Students and more than 70% Now Assess Outcomes Across The Curriculum Beyond The Use of Course Grades

National Survey of Academic Leaders Reveals Widespread Focus on Helping Students Track and Assess Their Progress Toward Broad Goals With 57% Using Electronic Portfolios For At Least Some Students

Apr 28, 2009

Washington, DC—The Association of American Colleges and Universities released findings today from a survey of its members revealing trends in undergraduate education and documenting the widespread use of a variety of approaches to assessing learning outcomes.  Completed by chief academic officers at 433 colleges and universities of all sorts (public and private, 2-year and 4-year, large and small), the survey shows that campus leaders are focused both on providing all students a broad set of learning outcomes and assessing students’ achievement of these outcomes across the curriculum.

Learning Outcomes for All Students

A large majority of institutions surveyed (78%) say that they have a common set of intended learning outcomes for all their undergraduate students.  Stated learning outcomes at these institutions include a wide array of cross-cutting skills and areas of knowledge, including many on which earlier surveys suggest employers want colleges to focus. The skills most widely addressed in college and university goals are writing, critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, oral communication, intercultural skills, information literacy, and ethical reasoning.  The knowledge areas most often required for all students are humanities, sciences, social sciences, global cultures, and mathematics.

“The findings from this survey indicate an important shift in focus for American higher education away from measuring progress by students’ seat time and accumulation of credits toward clarifying more transparently what students are expected to learn,” said AAC&U President Carol Geary Schneider. “Colleges and universities increasingly are emphasizing educational practices that help students both achieve essential learning outcomes and also demonstrate their achievement across multiple levels of learning.”

One area where survey respondents acknowledge the need for improvement is in communicating the importance of these outcomes to their students.  Among those institutions with common learning outcomes, only 5% of those surveyed say that they think almost all students understand their institution’s intended learning outcomes.  Another 37% believe that a majority of their students understand them.

Assessment of Learning Outcomes Now The Norm

More than seven in 10 (72%) of AAC&U member institutions are now assessing learning outcomes across the curriculum, and an additional one in four (24%) say they are planning for this assessment. 

Most colleges assess cumulative learning outcomes at the departmental level rather than in general education.  Nonetheless, nearly half (48%) of institutions surveyed are assessing at both the departmental level and in general education.  Fully 94% either are already assessing (52%), or plan to assess (42%), general education learning outcomes across multiple courses.  In an earlier AAC&U survey published in 2000, only 32 percent of institutions reported that they assessed student performance relative to general education goals either “very much” or “quite a lot.”

Colleges and universities are using a variety of approaches to assessing learning outcomes with 40% using rubrics applied to student work, 37% using capstone projects, and 35% using student surveys for assessment purposes.  Relatively few are using standardized national tests of general knowledge (16%) with about a quarter (26%) using standardized national tests of general skills, such as critical thinking.

Capstone Projects and Electronic Portfolios Take Hold

As more campuses focus attention on helping students—especially the large numbers of students transferring between and among institutions—integrate the different aspects of their learning and track their progress over time, interest has grown in such practices as capstone projects and e-portfolios.

Nearly all institutions, for instance, now offer capstone projects, with most making them available in departments rather than in general education and the majority offering them as an option rather than a requirement.  Nearly 40% require capstone projects of all or most students in departments and 19% require them of all students in general education.

More than half of those surveyed are now using electronic portfolios, but few are requiring them of all students.  Fifty-seven percent of responding institutions use electronic portfolios in some form, but only 42% are currently using at least some of them for assessment purposes.

“Recent national surveys of employers that we have conducted for AAC&U indicate that employers see real potential for the use of capstone projects and electronic portfolios to help students develop the high level of skills, knowledge, and integrative abilities they need for success in today’s workplace,” said Abigail Davenport, senior vice president of Peter D. Hart Research Associates and co-author of the survey.  “This survey suggests that many colleges are already using these approaches that employers feel add value for students.”

For a full report on the findings of this survey, click here.

For findings from employer surveys, see

A second report on additional findings from the current survey on trends in general education from the same survey will be released in May, 2009.

The survey was conducted on-line From November 19, 2008, to February 16, 2009 by Peter D. Hart Research. Completed surveys were received from 433 Chief Academic Officers or designated representatives at AAC&U member institutions.  The margin of error is ±4.7 percentage points for the entire sample, and it is larger for subgroups. The total population for the survey included 906 AAC&U member institutions that were invited to complete the survey, and thus the response rate for the survey is 48%.