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To Measure or Not to Measure: Which Student Outcomes Should Make the Cut?

Few would question whether colleges and universities should have administrative systems in place for measuring learning and course outcomes for all students, in ways that can be quantified and used to help institutions meet their goals. But not all outcomes are created equal, and deciding which outcomes schools should systematically measure for all students can be difficult and controversial.

When thinking about colleges engaging in systematic quantitative measurement of student outcomes, three core questions come to mind: (1) Is promoting this outcome a reasonable and widely held goal for higher education or a given institution? (2) Is actual measurement of the outcome at the institutional level the best strategy for solving the problem at hand? (3) Do the expected benefits of such measurement significantly outweigh the expected costs, compared with other initiatives with similar goals? In my book, if the answer to all three questions is “yes,” then instituting measurement of this outcome at higher education institutions should be seriously considered.

What got me thinking about these questions is the recent annual meeting of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, at which some participants called for measures of student well-being as an outcome of engaged learning.

In that scenario, defining the outcome of interest and determining how best to measure it are difficult tasks. But the real challenge is deciding whether measuring well-being will truly inform the problems it is intended to address. For example, if the goal of measuring student well-being is to identify disenfranchised minority groups and develop interventions accordingly, data about all students pertaining to a few dimensions of well-being may be less useful than rich data from in-depth qualitative studies with representatives of minority groups. Similarly, measuring the well-being of enrolled students may be inefficient if institutions are looking to promote overall positive adjustment, which would be more adequately (and usefully) measured after students graduate.

It may be, however, that measuring the outcome is in fact a worthy endeavor, but that the benefits do not justifiably outweigh the costs and potential unintended consequences. Perhaps the most important consideration here is whether the system that will be put in place to institutionalize measurement and its associated activities, which is no small or cheap feat, will remain relevant in the future. As the higher education landscape and the student population continually evolve, and students spend less and less time at any one institution, it becomes harder to decipher the role of any particular institution or its specific practices in promoting the general well-being of its students. Instead, institutions may wish to invest in testing the impact of particular interventions (such as a mentoring program) on specific aspects of student well-being (feeling supported and cared for by faculty members). Institutions could incentivize faculty to conduct this kind of research or other research on the relationships between college experiences and student well-being, in the same way that some institutions incentivize faculty to conduct research on the most effective teaching practices.

As a researcher with a background in mental health programming, I am certainly not against measuring student well-being or non-traditional outcomes in general. In fact my last blog post called for paying more attention to valuable non-economic outcomes of higher education. Rather, I think it is wise to reflect before going down the measurement rabbit hole and institutionalizing systems that sound good and feel right, but fail to deliver or remain relevant long enough to justify the effort – possibly at the expense of other more urgent and promising initiatives.

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