Background

cartoon_background_pageAssurance of learning1 is an important process in educational settings as it evaluates how well an institution accomplishes the educational aims at the core of its activities, whilst assisting the faculty members to improve programs and courses. Universities use the assurance of learning process to provide both qualitative and quantitative indicators of performance of teaching and learning for use in the assessment of the quality of award courses (Chalmers, 2008). These indicators of performance are used to guide the strategic directions, priorities, quality assurance and enhancement processes for teaching and learning.

The key stages in assuring learning involve:

  • i. Establishing graduate attributes and measurable learning objectives for the program
  • ii. Mapping learning objectives to suitable units of study in the program (where possible allowing for introduction, further development and then assurance of the objectives)
  • iii. Aligning relevant assessment tasks to assure learning objectives
  • iv. Communicating learning objectives to students
  • v. Collecting data to show student performance for each learning objective
  • vi. Reporting student performance in the learning objectives
  • vii. Reviewing reports to identify areas for program development – Closing the Loop
(AACSB White Paper, 2007) 2

In addition to individual institutional development, assurance of learning is used to provide valid evidence to external constituents such as potential students, public officials, and accreditors, that the organisation is meeting its goals and has built-in strategies for improvement. External agencies are an important consideration for universities. Traditionally the Australian University Quality Agency (AUQA) has been the principal national quality assurance agency in higher education with the responsibility of providing public assurance of the quality of Australia’s universities and other institutions of higher education, and assisting in enhancing the academic quality of these institutions. The Australian Government is establishing a new national regulatory and quality agency for higher education, the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA). In line with the establishment of TESQA the OLT has commissioned a Learning and Teaching Academic Standards Project (LTASP) to develop discipline specific threshold benchmark standards that will be applied across the whole sector.

The LTASP will be used as a foundation for this project. It was established to facilitate and coordinate discipline communities’ definitions of academic standards. The second stage will then focus on the processes for the assessment of performance against defined standards to be efficient, transparent, and sustainable, and include external peer review. The project recognised that the processes for assuring academic standards must not give rise to perverse consequences (e.g., standardisation of curricula). The LTASP authors have recognised the challenges of aligning the proposed benchmarks with the curriculum and the provision of evidence of student achievement. This includes archiving student work for external peer review purposes (Freeman, 2010). The authors have also highlighted the need for efficiency in the assurance of learning process and suggested that existing tools such as ReView and SPARKPLUS may be used to streamline the process.

This project will also build on an OLT project that was completed in 2009: Facilitating staff and student engagement with graduate attribute development, assessment and standards in Business faculties. The aim of the project was to promote and support strategic change in advancing graduate attribute development in Business education through the engagement of staff and students with learning and assessment processes that embed graduate attribute development. This process was supplemented by using a pre-existing online assessment system, ReView. This system allowed staff to engage with the graduate attributes by developing criteria that assessed graduate attributes within the set assignments. Students were then encouraged to engage with these attributes through self evaluation of their performance for each criterion. The outcomes of the project included an increase in staff awareness of graduate attributes, as academic staff developed assessment criteria writing skills and established feedback mechanisms that aligned with graduate attributes. Student survey results demonstrated that student awareness of graduate attributes and understanding of assessment criteria improved as a result of the implementation of this process.

The ALTC funded B Factor Project (2009) found that academic staff beliefs about graduate attributes and their low levels of confidence and willingness to teach and assess them must be acknowledged if universities are to progress in ensuring that graduates are equipped for the world of work. The proposed project will consider staff epistemologies when conducting an extensive audit to examine existing practices for assurance of learning, and when making recommendations for effective practices in different contexts.

  • 1. Assurance of learning is a phrase used by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business to refer to the assessment and documentation of program level learning outcomes
  • 2. Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) is a significant accreditation agency for business schools in Australian universities.