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The Journal of General Education 49.3 (2000) 182-210

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Assessing the Achievement of General Education Objectives: A College-Wide Approach

Trudy Bers



Many factors are driving colleges and universities to devote attention to assessing student learning outcomes. These factors include expectations of regional and specialized accrediting associations; public demands for information about what is happening to students; governmental reporting and accountability requirements; and institutions' own recognition that, to operate with integrity and continuously improve programs and services, they need to know what and how much students are learning.

A number of things make assessing general education learning outcomes one of the most challenging assessment areas in higher education. First, in subjects such as composition and mathematics, there are definable skill levels, which are relatively easier to articulate and measure than in other general education subjects, especially the social sciences and humanities. Second, student attendance patterns at many institutions, especially those where large numbers of students transfer general education coursework taken elsewhere or depart the institution before completing their general education component, make it difficult to determine what a particular school has contributed to a student's general education experience or even when the student is "done" at that institution. Third, faculty from many different disciplines may teach key general education skills, but not assess or even have a similar understanding of what a skill entails across other disciplines. For example, critical thinking is often taught by philosophers, psychologists, and educators, who may have quite different understandings of critical thinking and use different assessment approaches. [End Page 182]

Potential General Education Assessment Methods

A number of general education assessment approaches are reviewed by Palomba and Banta in their new book on assessment, Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, and Improving Assessment in Higher Education (1999). One common assessment approach is the use of standardized, commercially developed tests. Some of these instruments are designed to measure multiple outcomes, including critical thinking, reading, mathematics, and writing. Examples of these types of tests include the ACT's College Outcome Measures Program (ACT-COMP) and Collegiate Assessment of Academic Proficiency (ACT-CAAP), the University of Missouri-Columbia's College Basic Academic Subjects Examination (College BASE), and ETS's Academic Profile.

Other standardized tests focus on one particular outcome, such as critical thinking. Facione and others (1990) developed the California Critical Thinking Skills Test, and subsequently Facione and Facione (1992) developed a test to measure the disposition to think critically, the California Critical Thinking Dispositions Inventory. They followed with a holistic scoring rubric to measure cognitive critical-thinking skills (Facione & Facione, 1994). The Watson-Glaser Critical Thinking Appraisal is another critical thinking test (Pike, 1996a).

Standardized tests have both benefits and limitations or weaknesses. Among the benefits are the ability to compare results from a single institution with results from other colleges, frequently ones that are similar in characteristics; the fact that standardized instruments are often developed with substantial resources to examine validity and reliability; and the general acceptance of standardized tests as prima facie evidence of an institution's taking seriously the mandate to assess learning outcomes. Limitations or weaknesses include costs of administration, both time and money; faculty skepticism that standardized tests do not fit well with desired outcomes of the institution's general education courses; and the difficulty of having students take seriously examinations that may not count for grade point averages, course requirements, or graduation standards.

Another major approach consists of faculty developing their own assessments that can either directly or indirectly assess student [End Page 183] performance. Direct assessments of student performance can be embedded within courses and consist of essays, theses, objective tests, group projects, fieldwork, and final examinations. Miller, Imrie, and Cox (1998) provide an overview of these particular methods, which can be used for general education or more subject-specific content.

Wood (1997) briefly describes a semi-structured interview process to assess students' reflective judgment skills and a subsequent attempt at the University of Missouri to develop tests to assess reflective judgments. The tests were designed to reduce the prohibitive expenses involved in...


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