College Quarterly
Fall 1996 - Volume 4 Number 1

Learning Outcomes: A Performance Assessment Perspective, Part One

by Janine Huot


Program standards are the cornerstone of the current Standard Setting Initiatives of the Colleges Branch of the Ministry of Education and Training (MET). It is the responsibility of the Program Quality Unit of the Colleges Branch of MET to ensure consistency in the quality of all college credential programs in the Ontario college system. Much work has already taken place toward the establishment of system-wide program goals through the work of the now disbanded Ontario College Standards and Accreditation Council (CSAC); for an increasing number of programs, CSAC had already released some standards for general education goals and framework, for generic skills learning outcomes, and for vocational learning outcomes. The Ministry will be releasing more in the near future.

As recommended by Ontario's Vision 2000: Quality and Opportunity (1990) report, the colleges will be held accountable for the achievement of these standards through a system-wide program review leading to accreditation decisions by the Program Quality Unit. Those decisions will place high stakes on the assessment of student achievement undertaken in each program and require faculty to provide dependable information based on rigorous assessment practices.

More than ever, these practices must meet the criteria of quality assessment, and it is crucial that these criteria include an appropriate alignment between a learning outcome which represents a program standard, and the assessment method used to verify the achievement of this outcome.

In the context of the current initiatives, a careful understanding of the conceptual framework underlying the establishment of program standards is a prerequisite for creating this alignment, and for producing dependable assessment information. The documentation made available to the college system describes this framework's elements, three of which have a direct impact on assessment.

A first element appears in the Vision 2000 Report's third recommendation: "There should be system-wide standards for all programs leading to a college credential. Such standards must focus on the learning outcomes expected of graduates from a program." This means that learners in two- and three-year programs must demonstrate achievement of all program standards (vocational and generic skills learning outcomes, and general education requirements) attached to a credential in order to graduate.

A second element of the framework consists in the definition of learning outcomes. "Learning outcomes represent culminating demonstrations of learning and achievement. They are not simply a listing of discrete skills, nor broad statements of knowledge and comprehension. They describe performances that demonstrate that significant learning has been verified and achieved by graduates of the program." The definition and description of characteristics of learning outcomes have introduced a new terminology that is part of a widespread movement for making education more meaningful to students, and more responsive to workplace demands.

A third element of the framework is the set of indicators of a postsecondary exit level of achievement described in the (May 1995) CSAC document Generic Skills for Two and Three Year Programs in Ontario's Colleges of Applied Arts and Technology. "A community college post-secondary graduate is someone who can integrate knowledge, skills and dispositions in the application of theoretical principles to complex roles performed in the workplace and in his or her personal life. The ability to demonstrate this integration broadly characterizes the exit standard for community college post-secondary graduates. Community college post-secondary graduates demonstrate higher-order abilities that go beyond imitative learning. They are able to demonstrate the ability to transfer learning from one context to another through independent, multi-level problem solving skills, a range of investigative skills, critical thinking abilities, and effective communication skills."

The purpose of this article is to examine the strong alignment between the concept of learning outcomes and performance assessment, by means of finding insights into the conceptual framework underlying system-wide program standards. It is important to closely examine how to best achieve this alignment, because it will be the focus of the review process used to verify that programs are producing graduates who meet the established standards.

In what follows below, after a brief presentation of performance assessment as a strategy for verifying the achievement of learning outcomes, the characteristics of "learning outcomes" statements will be explained from the performance assessment perspective.

Performance Assessment

In recent years, there has been much attention to performance assessment in the educational literature. The discussion has focused on the use of performance assessment as an alternative to standardized testing and as a strategy for obtaining more complete information about students' achievement.

Performance assessment is a process which chiefly relies on the assessor's observations and professional judgment for the verification of students' learning on the basis of what students can do with their knowledge while carrying out complex performance tasks. Techniques for performance assessment include essay-writing assignments in which students analyze, synthesize and evaluate issues, the preparation of demonstrations, exhibition projects, computer simulations, and portfolios of work, and the undertaking of problem-solving exercises and similar tasks. These techniques require that teachers either observe students perform a complex task and/or assess the product of such performance, and then make a judgment about its quality.

Wiggins (1993), and Herman, Aschbacher and Winters (1992) describe performance assessment as a strategy which:

  • asks students to perform, produce, create, or do something;
  • uses tasks that are representative of performances displayed in society and the workplace;
  • requires the use of higher-order thinking processes;
  • provides students with opportunities to present and defend their work publicly and orally;
  • relies on people, and not machines, to do the scoring with the use of assessment criteria as the basis for human judgment.

Figure 1 presents an example of a performance assessment task by which students demonstrate their ability to (1) create products that reflect proficiency, (2) use appropriate resources and technology, (3) develop a product that satisfies an unmet need, (4) acquire knowledge about their diverse school community, and (5) apply knowledge and skills about photography (Redding, 1992).

Figure 1
Photo 2 Exam:
A Promotional Advertisement
  1. You are representing an ad agency. Your job is to find a client in the school who needs photos to promote his/her program. (Examples: the Teen Mothers' program, the Fine Arts program, Student Congress.)
  2. Your job is to research all the possibilities, select a program, learn about that program, and then record on film the excitement and unique characteristics that make up the program you have selected. Your photos will be used to advertise and stimulate interest in that area.
  3. Pre-visualize how you will illustrate your ideas by either writing descriptions or by drawing six of your proposed frames. Present these six ideas to your instructor (the director of the ad agency) before you shoot.

Performance assessment does not represent a new approach to the evaluation of learning. In the 1960s, the curriculum reform aimed at catching up with the then Soviet Union's achievements in space encouraged the use of performance assessment to assess students' abilities to think like scientists. However, this movement was short-lived, due to a shift towards more standardized testing in the early 1970s (Eisner, 1993). Vocational education teachers have always used performance assessment to some extent, for monitoring and evaluating the mastery of occupational skills, e.g., troubleshooting skills in Technology programs, communication skills in simulated interactive situations in Human Studies programs, and nursing skills in laboratory clinical settings for Health Sciences programs.

In the past, much controversy and concern has surrounded the use of such procedures, because of their inherent subjectivity and not unrelatedly, because of student complaints and grade appeals. While performance assessment may now appear to be the most suitable strategy for verifying the achievement of complex learning outcomes, Stiggins (1994) cautions teachers that developing and using performance assessment techniques is a complex task which challenges to avoid what he calls "assessment by guess and by gosh."

Part Two of this essay begins with a discussion of linking learning outcomes to performance assessment, and concludes with comments on the need to adopt a performance assessment perspective.

Click here to open Part Two


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1996 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology