[The following is an edited excerpt from Bresciani, MJ. (2006). Outcomes-based academic and co-curricular program review: A compilation of institutional good practices. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing.]
While "outcomes-based assessment" may seem to be a catch phrase, the intention behind outcomes based assessment-that of quality assurance and external accountability in higher education-has been around since the 12th century. Today, there are many definitions for outcomes-based assessment.
Maki (2004) posits that outcomes-based assessment is a systematic means to satisfy educators' innate intellectual curiosity about how well their students learn what educators say they are learning. Suskie (2004) writes that assessment is writing clear measurable outcomes, ensuring students opportunities to reach those outcomes, implementing a systematic evaluation system and then using the results to improve student learning. Hernon and Dugan (2004) define assessment as "the process of gathering and assembling data in an understandable form" (p. 8). Several other definitions for assessment and outcomes-based assessment exist, some varying a great deal from one another, as they are embedded in various academic disciplines (e.g., psychology, medicine, etc.).
When implementing outcomes-based assessment at an institution, it is extremely important to have a group of faculty and practitioners come together to define outcomes-based assessment so that it has meaning to those who will be implementing it (Bresciani et al, 2004). Some institutions, such as Sinclair Community College, choose to borrow a definition from the literature, while others, such as Alverno College, develop one from conversations with faculty and staff.
While each of the good practice institutions has adopted its own definition of assessment, for the purpose of this book, I offer the following working definition for outcomes-based assessment program review.
Outcomes-based assessment program review is a systematic process in which program faculty or professionals articulate the intended results of the cumulative contribution of their program. In outcomes-based assessment, faculty and co-curricular professionals articulate what the program intends to accomplish in regards to its services, research, student learning, and faculty/staff development programs. The faculty and/or professionals then purposefully plan the program so that the intended results (i.e., outcomes) can be achieved, implement methods to systematically--over time--identify whether the end results have been achieved, and finally use the results to plan improvements or make recommendations for policy consideration, recruitment, retention, resource re-allocation, or new resource requests. This systematic process of evaluation is then repeated at a later date to see if the program improvements contribute to the intended outcomes.
Keep in mind that while an institution may have one definition for outcomes-based assessment program review; practitioners may need to be flexible with the interpretation of the definition so that it can accommodate the needs of individual professional accreditation units and/or professional standards. For some, the institutional definition may provide all the flexibility that is needed. For example, at North Carolina State University, the definition for outcomes-based assessment program review took into account the most rigorous professional program accreditation requirements and standards operating in the programs at the university, so that it could meet all of the other professional accreditation requirements in effect at the university. If this is not the case for you, you may need to create crosswalks from individual college and division definitions to the university definition.
Most importantly, the definition for outcomes-based assessment program review should reinforce that it is not a process designed to be merely self-propagating and self-contained-it exists to provide educators, researchers, and practitioners information to satisfy their own natural curiosity about the end result of their work . The information gleaned from the process informs conversations about accountability and opportunities for improvement. To reiterate, the process is not a means unto its own end; it is a way to systematically engage in daily critical inquiry about discovering what works well and what needs to be improved (Maki, 2004).