Academically Adrift's authors on faculty project to define learning outcomes in six fields

Faculty members tend to be skeptical about attempts to go beyond grading with standardized definitions and measures of what students should learn — the so-called student learning outcomes accreditors require colleges to collect.

The wariness of professors is often well founded, the authors of the influential book Academically Adrift argue in a new book, because faculty members often haven’t been at the table when these measures and related assessments are being developed.

“There’s good reason for a lot of the skepticism and discontent,” said Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University and director of the Social Science Research Council’s Education Research Program. He said many faculty members view learning outcomes as a form of “sham compliance” for colleges with accreditors.

So does Bob Shireman, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and former official at the U.S. Department of Education. In a recent essay, Shireman called learning outcomes “worthless bean-counting and cataloging exercises that give faculty members every reason to ignore or reject the approach.”

The Measuring College Learning project, which Arum has helped lead, seeks to change that dynamic by putting faculty members in charge of determining how to measure learning in six academic disciplines. After more than two years of work, the project has defined the “fundamental concepts and competencies society demands from today’s college graduates” in biology, business, communication, economics, history and sociology.

The project’s …