Peer Review

Assessing General Education Competencies within Academic Disciplines

When approaching assessment of student learning outcomes, colleges and universities would be well-served to look beyond the all-too familiar silos for measuring student learning ( i.e., course assessments, program assessments, and assessment of general education). Regional accrediting bodies expect institutions to take an integrative approach to measuring student learning. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education explicitly requires that institutions demonstrate “clearly articulated statements of expected student learning outcomes at all levels (institution, degree/program, course)…” (2006). How is this articulation and integration best accomplished?

In my view, the critical juncture in achieving this integration of learning outcomes is the development of credible, measurable learning outcomes at the program level. What are the specific, demonstrable competencies that are expected of all graduating biology majors at my institution? Of all sociology majors? Of all English majors? Of all physics majors? Once those competencies are defined, it is then much easier to identify learning outcomes at the course level that will contribute to the acquisition of those summative programmatic competencies. Linking course outcomes to overarching disciplinary outcomes is not complicated, as the focus is on competencies related to the specific discipline. The more challenging linkage is articulating program and discipline to “umbrella” institutional competencies that are expected of all graduates, regardless of discipline. These are typically general education skills such as critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, oral and written communication and information literacy.

While many institutions use standardized tests directed at measuring general education to assess competencies in samples of students from across the disciplines, that approach does not suit assessment of general education skills within the disciplines. A common approach to the latter is one in which a representative sample of students from a given program are asked to submit three samples of written work, two from senior-level courses within the discipline and one from outside the discipline. Those work samples are then evaluated by a faculty panel using an appropriately constructed set of rubrics designed to assess mastery of general educations skills. Construction of such rubrics is not a daunting task. The Association of American Colleges and Universities has created just such rubrics with its Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education (VALUE) Project. They lend themselves particularly well to measuring general education skills within portfolios of work in a given discipline, and more than satisfy the required articulation between program and institutional learning outcomes required by accrediting bodies. Perhaps more valuable is the fact that this approach to assessing general education within the disciplines prompts faculty into thoughtful dialogue about what it is they teach within the discipline and how that content ties to broader competencies that characterize successful college graduates. Therein lies the key to improving the teaching/learning process.

The true value of the assessment process lies in “closing the loop.” While it is important to measure student learning at various points in students’ academic careers, those measurements have value only when faculty examine them in thoughtful ways and use them as the basis for collegial discussions on how the teaching/learning process can be improved both within the discipline and at the broad institutional level. This loop-closing conversation is the key to compliance with accreditation standards that address the assessment process.


Middle States Commission on Higher Education. 2006. Characteristics of excellence: Eligibility requirements and standards for accreditation. Philadelphia, PA: Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools.

Michael F. Middaugh is the associate provost for institutional effectiveness at the University of Delaware and chair of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

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