Common Sense: Using Common Finals to Measure Postsecondary Student Learning

College completion rates in the U.S. are stubbornly low despite the large and rising returns to a college degree.  Efforts to increase student success in college have largely ignored a potentially key factor: the instruction that students receive in the sequence of courses that add up to a college education.  Little evidence exists about how well students learn the material taught in these courses, largely because student performance is assessed using exams developed by instructors and thus cannot be compared to students at other institutions or even in other sections of the same course at the same college.

The lack of direct measures of student learning in higher education severely hampers efforts to measure the quality of instruction delivered in different classrooms.  Improving the quality of instruction may represent a promising path to increasing the number of students who earn high-quality degrees by decreasing frustration and failure, and improving the skills of college graduates.  But it is nearly impossible to improve instructional quality without being able to measure it.

This report describes a sophisticated set of common final exams implemented in two developmental algebra courses at Glendale Community College in California. These common finals enable instructors and administrators to compare student performance across different sections, and have earned broad faculty support by being implemented in a way that strikes a balance between standardization and the preservation of faculty autonomy.

I show how data from common finals can be used to measure how much students learn in sections of the same course taught by different instructors, and how instructor characteristics such as education and full-time status are related to student mastery of algebra.  These results are limited in scope to the two courses at a single institution represented in my data, but serve as a “proof of concept” of the kind of analyses that are made possible by the adoption of common final exams.

I conclude with four policy recommendations aimed at moving forward efforts to assess and improve the quality of postsecondary instruction and ultimately increase the number of students who earn high-quality credentials:

  • First, more departments at more postsecondary institutions should adopt common final exams in their large, multi-section, introductory courses.  The exams should be developed by faculty and reflect a consensus among professors about what students ought to be able to do after completing these introductory courses.
  • Second, campus administrators should encourage and provide support for these efforts, such as financial support to cover the modest costs of developing and implementing common finals as well as financial incentives to departments that undertake these efforts.  Public university systems and higher education associations such as the American Council on Education and the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities could help coordinate efforts across member institutions.
  • Third, administrators should directly address concerns that common finals will be used to evaluate faculty.  Some faculty may worry that test-score data will be used in ways that are unfair, and others may be resistant to any form of evaluation that represents a departure from business as usual.  But some faculty may support learning-based measures as an alternative to sole reliance on student course evaluations.
  • Finally, higher education researchers and practitioners should work to continuously improve common finals.  Pre-tests could be developed and administered at the beginning of the semester so that student learning is measured as growth over the course of the semester.  Ways to assess student learning in courses other than large, multi-section courses also need to be developed for use in settings such as introductory lecture courses taught by a single instructor.

Editor’s Note: The report contains an overview of this issue, and policy recommendations.  For the more detailed analysis that led to these recommendations, see the technical paper at the link below.

Read the report » (PDF)

Read the technical paper » (PDF)