Joining the Dots (JTD)

The datafication of higher education : evaluating tests that measure learning outcomes.

Hamish Coates, ACER


'Fireside chats' remain part of higher education, but the industry is subject to increasing quantification, assessment and review. Australia is certainly at the forefront of this change, with the Bradley Review ushering in a new era of accountability, transparency and productivity initiatives. After much discussion, these are starting to play out in 2011, underscoring the significance of building capacity and resources within universities for critically consuming potential assessment tools and approaches. Bearing in mind this apparently inexorable trend, this briefing explores one facet of what might be referred to as the datafication of higher education. In particular, the briefing reviews the kinds of tests institutions can use to measure undergraduate learning outcomes. The briefing is not a product review, but after a few contextualising remarks presents a broader analysis of the kinds of questions institutions must ask of assessments that could be adopted – or potentially imposed – to measure, and hence improve, higher education. While Joining the Dots presents an evidence-based picture of key facets of higher education, no data are presented in this briefing as very little data exist. Despite and possibly because of its centrality to higher education, generating objective measures of learning remains an elusive task. Necessarily, the briefing touches on methodological ideas, but is practical in intent. There are many and varied outcomes resulting from a university education – employment, graduate study, intellectual growth, social development, to name just a few. As these outcomes take different forms they are measured with different tools such as tests, surveys, interviews and administrative data. Given the telic nature of tests and the centrality of learning outcomes, this briefing concentrates on tests of learning outcomes. In summary, the briefing provides information about: tests that exist to measure higher education learning outcomes; questions that critical consumers should ask; and qualities of productive assessments in higher education. [Author abstract]