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Understanding Learning as Students Experience It

“What do students learn at DePaul?”  On its surface, this seems like a fairly straightforward question.  However, the trickier question may be “how do we know?”  This is where assessment comes into play.  Commonly, universities try to answer this question by assessing learning outcomes in courses, academic programs, and sometimes co-curricular programs, separately.  However, I think most of us who were students ourselves understand that this is not the way students actually experience learning at a university.

One may then reasonably ask, why do we measure learning the way we do?  Like most things in life, the answer is simple on its surface and more complex as we dig deeper.  The simple answer is we measure learning as we do for the sake of convenience.  Our assessment of learning tends to follow administrative structures because it is the easiest way to collect information.

However, as José Bowen pointed out in his recent keynote at the 2014 Teaching and Learning conference, we need to think about the value of the campus experience, especially given the number and variety of free, high-quality content delivery systems, like MOOCs, Khan Academy, and TED Talks.  Understanding the value of the university experience demands our understanding of learning as students experience it – as an integrated and fluid whole, rather than as distinct, unrelated experiences inside or outside of the classroom.

Although we don’t have the definitive answer, the DePaul community has begun to tackle this issue through a variety of initiatives.  The first is the alignment project, described in the January 1, 2014 blog post, under the leadership of Caryn Chaden, Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs.  The SOTL (or Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) initiative, as described in the January 7, 2014 TLA blog post is a second way of understanding student learning as students experience it.

Beginning in Fall 2014, we will kick off a third initiative: the Assessment Certificate Program.  This program is a collaboration between Academic Affairs and Student Affairs that will bring together faculty and staff from across the university who participate in students’ learning.  Through cooperation, collaboration, and a shared understanding of how students learn and how we can measure it, we hope to take another step forward toward the elusive goal of understanding learning as an integrated and fluid whole, rather than simply as discrete experiences.


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