Higher Learning Commission

2014 Collection of Papers

Balancing Priorities: Sharing Responsibility for the
Assessment of Student Learning

Andi Lassiter and Lynn Akey

For some time, researchers, educators, and practitioners have acknowledged that in order to create a learning culture, where assessment becomes a part of the learning process, various constituents must share responsibility for assessment of student learning (Shepard 2000). This includes teachers, who evaluate both their own teaching and student learning; students, who should be actively evaluating their own work and progress toward achieving learning outcomes; and administrators, who share a vision, set priorities, and evaluate outcomes at a larger system level. Only when all parties involved are committed, engaged, and working toward accomplishing the same goals can a learning culture be developed.

Organizational development researchers study culture change and have identified best practices for leading change (e.g., Schein 2004). These include aligning the goals of the change effort with organizational strategy; gaining commitment from top-level leadership; creating and maintaining a superior change team; and planning for continuous improvement. This paper describes how Minnesota State University, Mankato used these principles to help institutionalize a new set of student learning outcomes toward a learning culture that values assessment of student learning in ways the university never had before. The efforts described in this paper have been a part of the Academy Project for the university’s participation in the Higher Learning Commission’s (HLC) Academy for Assessment of Student Learning.

Multiple Perspectives

As with any change effort, aligning multiple goals and perspectives becomes the first challenge. At Minnesota State University, Mankato, our work toward institutionalizing student learning has involved consideration of multiple levels, both internal and external to the organization. At a micro level, internally, it was necessary to consider multiple perspectives offered by university personnel representing top leadership, the assessment office director and staff, faculty members, and students—all in a highly unionized environment that places a strong value on shared governance. Ultimately, all internal stakeholders can appreciate different goals, but there are different emphases and perceptions that affect goal setting. For example, administrators may be perceived to be more concerned with compliance and accreditation, while faculty members may be perceived to be more focused on evaluation of their own teaching. If not acknowledged and addressed early in the process, these differences can lead to failure in change efforts.

At the macro level, Minnesota State University, Mankato belongs to a system of two-year and four-year institutions within the state, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities (MnSCU). MnSCU governance provides some oversight to the university, and the university must fit in with the goals of this larger system. Considering this, our definitions of student learning and culture change must align with the priorities of the larger system as well as our own. Further, as the system changes, the university must be flexible enough to meet new priorities. Additional macro-level drivers are compliance and accreditation guidelines. As an institution accredited by the HLC, Minnesota State University, Mankato must consider current trends and best-practice suggestions offered by the Commission in assessment practices at the university to maintain good standing.

Developing Student Learning Outcomes

From the early days, this project had a great deal of support from top-level leadership. A university committee worked to develop a set of institutional student learning outcomes. Organizational leaders encouraged participation from many groups to provide feedback on these outcomes. Varied priorities among stakeholders often led to detailed discussions about particular language to be used, and not to be used, when identifying student learning outcomes. It was a long process involving many committees. This was a particular concern, considering how long some committee work tends to take, where action can take a backseat to process. Ultimately, the university adopted a set of seven broad outcomes. It would not have been possible to get to this point without administrator commitment, support, and guidance, particularly from personnel in the Office of Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment.

Toward Institutionalization and Shared Responsibility

After the student learning outcomes were adopted, the next question was, “What should we do with these?” An additional concern was helping the campus community learn about these outcomes and how to use them. Organizational scholars might identify this as a problem engagement—“How can we engage action around these outcomes?” We needed to help constituents develop a shared responsibility, but it was unclear who would drive this engagement. Is this work the job of the assessment office, a select few representatives, or all of us?

The best practice of organizational change most relevant for Minnesota State University, Mankato was to create and maintain a superior change team. The university applied to participate in the HLC Academy for Assessment of Student Learning. A team of representatives from various internal university constituents was selected. This Academy team included top-leadership, cocurricular administrators, and faculty members. We also formed an organizational task force; it was composed of a dozen individuals, Academy team members and others, who would serve as advocates or champions of this change effort. Since the initial Academy, our participation in HLC Academy Roundtables has helped our team keep the university up to date on current trends and best practices in outcomes assessment. It also has allowed us to network with others who are going through similar change efforts and discuss our progress and work with a mentor. These experiences help our team keep our goals in check, stay engaged with change efforts, and plan for continued improvement.

Our Process of Institutionalizing Assessment of Student Learning

Developing a shared responsibility is the primary goal toward institutionalizing assessment of student learning. This will be accomplished through sub-goals established by groups of stakeholders across the institution. Following is a brief discussion of three areas that illustrate the progress so far.

General Education

Early in our participation in the Academy, we knew that there should be a focus on applying the newly established outcomes to the university’s general education goals. Internal constituent groups had some concerns with how assessment of the general education program had been going. As such, we planned to cross-walk the general education goals and student learning outcomes toward a revised assessment plan and process. Currently, the general education program has an established, multiyear assessment plan and we are in the data collection phase of this process.

Academic Programs/Departments

While departments and programs may have been participating in external program review and internal program assessment activities, previously there has not been a way to connect program outcomes to institutional outcomes. With the establishment of a new faculty liaison position, program/departmental assessment is gaining new momentum. Faculty members are learning about the purposes of assessment and how it can be used to inform what is known about what students are learning. Presently, we have strong evidence that participation in program assessment and assessment activities has increased at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

Cocurricular Programs

In this area, assessment has been happening for some time. However, like some academic programs, this work was not connected to broader institutional student learning outcomes. Through some of our Academy work, we have been involving cocurricular representatives and are working to help them connect their assessment efforts to the institutional outcomes.

Lessons Learned

Several challenges have interfered with our progress toward changing the culture of assessment and institutionalizing student learning outcomes. First, there has been some turnover in our Academy team and in top-level administrators who were involved with the project from the beginning. While anticipated, it has in turn influenced our team’s ability to communicate our efforts to those at the top of the organization. We could also be doing a better job of marketing our work with the Academy across campus. Many constituents do not know about or understand how their work can and should be connected to our student learning outcomes. We have learned from these challenges and continue our efforts to emphasize integration, utilization, and communication of these student learning outcomes.

Balancing Priorities Moving Forward

A key best practice for both culture change and assessment is that these efforts are ongoing and not one-time-only. Presently our change efforts are focused on maintaining a superior change team and planning for continuous improvement. Those within the assessment community describe this as “closing the loop” (e.g., Hawthorne and Kelsch, 2012). While Minnesota State University, Mankato prides itself on shared governance, we continue to work toward developing a shared responsibility for the assessment of student learning. Committees are highly involved with planning for assessment, gathering the data, and preparing reports. We are working toward “closing the loop” on our assessment processes and are continuing efforts to use assessment of student learning in planning, decision making, and marketing of our programs and services.


Hawthorne, J., and A. Kelsch. 2012. Closing the loop: How an assessment project paved the way for GE reform. Assessment Update 24 (4).

Schein, E. H. 2004. Organizational culture and leadership, 3rd ed. New York: Wiley.

Shepard, L. A. 2000. The role of assessment in a learning culture. Educational Researcher 29 (7): 4–14.



About the Authors

Andi Lassiter is Associate Professor and Lynn Akey is Assistant Vice President for Institutional Research, Planning, and Assessment at Minnesota State University, Mankato.

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NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but they do not represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.

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