campus partner(s)

Council for Aid to Education






Fresh Thinking

award date


project director

Roger Benjamin

Council for Aid to Education

Grant Summary

$300,000 over 36 months. The aim of the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA): Informing Best Educational Practice project is to respond to the need for systematic measurement of the value added of liberal education and, in the long term, improve student learning outcomes in liberal arts colleges. There have been a number of major impediments to assessing liberal education outcomes. One is the seeming definitional flux of definitions of liberal education. A second is the lack of adequate measures to assess educational outcomes beyond information acquisition and comprehension. A third is the belief that the important effects of a liberal education cannot be measured until far beyond the college years. Finally, there is the belief held by some that liberal education neither can nor need be assessed - so powerful are its inherent virtues and our ability to know it when we see it. We seek to overcome these problems. Our Collegiate Learning Assessment project is focused on assessing a few selected undergraduate student outcomes such as critical thinking analytic reasoning, and writing skills that fall under the rubric of liberal education.

Excellence and quality should be determined by the degree to which an institution develops the abilities of its students. In the literature on higher education, the term "value added" often refers either to the value of having a college degree - in terms of income, job, and life satisfaction - or to the benefits derived from alternative programs, courses of study, and experiences within an institution. The CLA focuses on a third definition, which has to do with the institution as a whole. What difference does the institution make for its students? Is it more effective in making a difference now than in the past? Is it more effective than other similarly situated schools after controlling for the admissions scores and other relevant attributes of its incoming students? Measuring such value requires assessing what students know and can do as they begin college and assessing them again during and after they have had the full benefit of their college education. Value added is the difference a college makes in their education. Value added assessment is the most appropriate means for examining the institutional contribution to the growth of liberal education skills and is the core methodological principle of the CLA project.

Working with the Council for Independent Colleges (CIC) consortium of liberal arts colleges we plan to show the practical benefits of the inter-institutional comparison opportunities afforded by the CLA. This goal is based on the argument that the rationale for creating a value added assessment metric is to help institutions of higher education improve their curricula and pedagogy in order to advance student learning. But the research to develop that assessment metric is a necessary but insufficient condition for such an endeavor. We also have to help institutions develop cultures of learning and cultures of assessment that see measurement of learning as an integral part of teaching and of the life of the institution. Thus, as we gather the results of our outcome measures on these campuses we are interested in investigating, through case studies, those campuses that do especially well (fall above the regression line for predicted student achievement) and those who fall below predictions. From these we will be able to derive those practices that seem to make a difference positively and/or impede student learning. More specifically, we intend to,

  • Identify areas of student learning where improvement is needed (using our measures and other assessments and indexes),

  • Develop strategies that are aimed at making improvements,

  • Help colleges assess whether the strategies they selected are implemented as planned (and if not, why not),

  • Measure the effects of the strategies that were actually implemented.


There are several metrics that we will use to evaluate the results of this project. The most basic metric will be the value added results themselves - how many institutions are found to produce greater than expected results versus how many are found to produce less than expected results? The research design, described above, ensures that the project's progress will be monitored on an annual basis. As has been the case in the past, results of the project will be published in peer-reviewed journals. The results themselves, i.e., the answers to the research questions posed above, will comprise the evaluation of the project's impact in the near term. The outcome metric to be used will be the value added scores produced through the use of the CLA and GRE type assessment instruments. In addition, there are important associated questions to answer that will indicate the level of success of the project. (1) How many institutions, and at what degree of detail, use the CLA and the process we have developed to guide its use, in concert with other measures, to make changes in their curriculum and pedagogy by the end of this project? (2) How many institutions commit to continue to use the CLA, in combination with other measures, after the project ends? In other words, how many institutions embed the CLA and the process of implementing it in their curriculum and pedagogical reform for the long term? (3) In the long run, does the CLA assist liberal arts colleges in adding more value in liberal education to their students?

Dissemination of the research will be undertaken in a number of ways: conference presentations; research journal articles; popular press; web site postings; presentation of results by our researchers on individual campuses.