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Common Sense: Using Common Finals to Measure Postsecondary Student Learning

April 12, 2013

Common Sense: Using Common Finals to Measure Postsecondary Student Learning
Source: Brookings Institution

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.

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