Assessing Student Development and Learning in the Cocurricular
Moving Our Institutions Closer to Providing Evidence of Educating the Whole Student
By Marilee J. Bresciani

From the April 2003

The growing demand for accountability on all fronts has higher education constituents asking for evidence of student learning. Such demand has mobilized faculty and administrators to go about the business of articulating that which their students are learning and then finding ways to provide evidence of that learning. Attempts to provide such evidence has educators thinking they have only to add together all the indicators of classroom and laboratory learning to determine how well their institutions are meeting their stated student learning principles.

Or is it that easy?

Is there evidence beyond the meaningful classroom experience that still eludes us and thus makes it difficult to illustrate how we are educating the student as a whole? And if so, how do we go about gathering that evidence?

Educating the Whole Student

Colleges are beginning to articulate the non-academic-specific skills they expect of their graduates. James V. Maher, provost of the University of Pittsburgh, describes several qualities that the university expects every student to possess upon graduation, including communication skills, a sense of self, motivation, and a sense of responsibility. (See "Pitt Academics: Educating the Whole Student,", Alverno College refers to those qualities as "abilities" (see "Ability-Based Curriculum," Indiana University Purdue University-Indianapolis refers to the qualities as "principles of undergraduate learning" (

While the process that envisioned these qualities and their assessment varies across each institution, the purpose behind them is similar. These institutions want to demonstrate that they are paying attention to instruction that transcends the classroom experience — education that encompasses the whole collegiate experience — and thus articulate institutional learning competencies for all students.

The Association of American Colleges & Universities' report "Greater Expectations: A New Vision for Learning as a Nation Goes to College" notes that without such conversations and their resulting actions about learning competencies or shared institutional learning goals, students will move in and out of separately organized courses, programs, and campus activities and may never understand why those programs and courses existed, let alone how they benefited from participation in them.

Neglecting the consideration of the whole student's education (e.g., discipline, general education, and the cocurricular) may lead to further disconnect among those academicians who care that the student learns a chosen discipline, or the core requirements, from those who worry about the student's healthy psychological and social development. This type of disconnect may lead to turf wars between institutional units and arguments over much needed resources, if we are unable, as an institution, to connect all the learning and development pieces (e.g., discipline, general education, and cocurricular) into a comprehensive whole.

The American College Personnel Association, in its report "The Student Learning Imperative: Implications for Student Affairs," declares, "The concepts of 'learning,' 'personal development,' and 'student development' are inextricably intertwined and inseparable." (See "The Student Learning Imperative," If we adopt the report's proposition, then we must also agree that learning that occurs in the cocurricular, along with the learning and development that occurs in the curricular, should move the institution toward a conversation about educating the whole student. In other words, if those delivering the cocurricular can articulate the valued learning and development outcomes of their programs, then they can join in the conversation about comprehensive student learning principles.

Furthermore, as institutional learning goals are articulated, the administrators and faculty responsible for realizing those goals can begin to point to where stated learning and development is occurring. Once the point of learning is identified, then the institution's faculty and administrators can move toward identifying ways to gather the evidence that such competencies are being met. Decisions based on the data can be made to improve the delivery of the outcomes and to showcase learning accomplishments. This gathering of evidence to assess outcomes and to make decisions based on that data is called assessment.

The Assessment Craze

Peggy Maki, AAHE director of assessment, writes, "Assessment is a means of discovering — both inside and outside of the classroom — what, how, when, and which students learn and develop an institution's expected learning outcomes" (See "Using Multiple Assessment Methods to Explore Student Learning and Development Inside and Outside of the Classroom,"

Put simply, assessment seeks to answer the following questions:

  • What are we trying to do and why? or
  • What is my program supposed to accomplish?
  • How well are we doing it?
  • How do we know?
  • How do we use the information to improve or celebrate successes?
  • Do the improvements we make work?" (See "Outcomes Assessment in Student Affairs: Moving Beyond Satisfaction to Student Learning and Development,"

In answering these questions, an institution can examine how individual programs and programs collectively are meeting institutional expectations for student learning and development; and can then be able to pinpoint where improvements need to be made when expectations are not met. In other words, it is this assessment process that allows for the identification of each program's contributions to student learning, thus allowing program faculty and administrators entrée into the institutional learning competency conversation and the decisions needed for the improvement of those abilities.

Again, if it is this simple, why aren't more cocurricular programs joining in on the institutional proficiencies conversation? It may be because many cocurricular programs have no evidence of their contributions to student learning and development.

Cocurricular administrators tell me that gathering evidence for students who weave in and out of their programs is most challenging. For some cocurricular programs, the students are "one-stop shoppers," absorbing what they can or what they think they should in order to move on to the next recommended or required program. Other students float in and out of support services over the course of their academic career. Very few cocurricular specialists actually offer their services to a consistent group of students. This causes many cocurricular professionals to ask, "How do I assess this transient student population for anything but satisfaction of services?"

Assessment Practices in Student Affairs
AAHE Assessment Conference Closing Plenary

Developing a rich understanding of how and when students learn involves developing assessment practices that seek evidence of student learning and development in multiple learning contexts   both inside and outside of the classroom. Using different lenses or approaches to assess students provides valuable information about how and when students learn and develop and what institutions assert they teach or inculcate.

Three leaders in student affairs will describe their efforts to assess student learning and development within the programs and services they offer, as well as in partnership with faculty.

  • Kari T. Ellingson, assistant vice president for student development, University of Utah
  • Hazel J. Scott, vice president for student services, Georgia State University
  • Marco Antonio Cruz, executive director, Division of Student Outreach & Support Services, the National Hispanic University

Moderator: Marilee Bresciani, director of assessment for undergraduate affairs, North Carolina State University

The closing plenary is sponsored by the National Association for Student Personnel Administrators.

For more information on the 2003 AAHE Assessment Conference, see

Capturing the Elusive Evidence

By formulating an assessment plan that focuses on student learning and development, program administrators will begin to see how their current program may need to be revised to enhance student learning and development. By identifying student learning outcomes, administrators should see how principles of curriculum development apply.

For example, a Women's Center wants to move from offering a smattering of various workshops and speakers on several topics to a curriculum-driven model that focused on particular women's identity development outcomes. Forming an assessment plan for student learning can compel program faculty and staff to reflect on what it is they are trying to accomplish and the best way in which to achieve their outcomes. In doing so, they will have to repackage the program's services.

Repackaging or recasting services is often an outcome of articulating an assessment plan, particularly one that moves from focusing on satisfaction to student learning and development. In doing so, when applicable, a program also begins to identify its constituents and consequently begins to identify those whose learning it will be assessing. In identifying constituents (e.g., students) served by each outcome, programs can begin to gather evidence for specific groups of students. Where program administrators are not able to identify particular student constituents (e.g., those students who flow in and out of their programs), I recommend they focus on the assessment of student learning and development of graduate students or student paraprofessionals educated to assist with the work, such as undergraduate and graduate residence hall directors and advisors, peer mentors, and peer counselors. If no paraprofessionals are a part of the program and the program is not able to identify a consistent cohort of students, then I recommend using student electronic portfolios.

Electronic Portfolios

Thanks to technology advancements and to faculty, administrators, and assessment professionals committed to providing technological solutions to assessment management issues, student electronic portfolios are an effective way to share evidence of student learning across disciplines and across the cocurriculum. Such methods allow for evidence of institutional outcomes to be gathered and examined in one place.

Through articulation of outcomes and criteria that is applicable to multiple learning environments, faculty and administrators can determine levels of student's writing, problem solving, oral presentation, and ethical reasoning abilities, as well as other desired institutional competencies. Students can literally move in and out of environments of learning, capturing evidence of learning — even if only having visited a particular environment one time.

True, value-added assessment is difficult to comprehend in this scenario, yet evidence of learning and development gathered from each arena is present. If an institution is truly committed to educating the whole student, then it may be said that the argument for "what was learned where" is supported when evidence of learning transpires, not in the belief that a certain type of learning only occurs in x course by y instructor.

Student Learning Principle Conversion and Conversation

If institutions are able to commit to education of the whole student, then the motivation for the cocurricular to become involved in assessing student learning and development is ever present. If institutional expectations are set for all to assess student learning and development, then every curricular and cocurricular professional can enter into the institutional competency conversation.

If all enter into this conversation, then possibly we will see more collaboration among programs to deliver that which the student needs, and through assessment we will be able to improve student learning and development in a fundamental way. Institutions will be able to confirm to constituents of all types that every program does understand that which they are trying to accomplish and why; how well they are doing it; how they know; how they use the information to improve or celebrate successes; and whether the improvements they make work.

Marilee J. Bresciani is director of assessment, division of undergraduate affairs, North Carolina State University. See her homepage at Contact her at

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