Auburn becomes one of first U.S. universities to measure gains in learning, writing abilities

AUBURN – Recent results from a pioneering study involving more than two dozen colleges and universities across the nation show significant gains in the intellectual and academic skills of Auburn University students as they progress from freshmen to seniors.

The findings were presented today to the Auburn Board of Trustees, which has supported the university’s involvement in the program for data-based measurement of student learning since the program began in 2005.

The university’s chief academic officer, Provost Mary Ellen Mazey, says results of the Collegiate Learning Assessment, or CLA, provide evidence that at Auburn, students are developing at a rapid pace key skills expected of a college graduate. Until recently, that was a claim that all colleges and universities made but few could document.

“The CLA provides a strong accountability component to education,” Mazey said this week. “Auburn was one of the first institutions nationally to participate, and results will allow us to continually monitor and improve our student outcomes and success.”

Drew Clark, Auburn’s director of institutional research and assessment, said the assessment addresses a matter that is at the heart of higher education. “The question that the CLA seeks to answer is: Can we demonstrate that students are getting smarter during their time in college? Everyone assumes that is the case, but how do they know?”

Funded by the nonprofit Lumina Foundation, the assessment program seeks to help participating colleges and universities answer those questions. The CLA study was designed to help universities improve instruction and curricula by evaluating overall student performance over four years and developing programs and initiatives to correct deficiencies and build on strengths.

To track comprehensive student progress, the CLA uses a scoring system comparable to the SAT college entrance exam. Students in a scientifically selected sample take their first series of CLA tests in their freshman year, and their average as a group forms a basis for future comparisons. They take a comparable CLA test in their sophomore year and again in their senior year to measure their educational progress.

Using standardized computer-based procedures, the CLA presents students with complex materials involving realistic problems. Over three hours, students must complete two tasks that require them to read, analyze, evaluate and apply information from those materials to develop potential solutions to these problems.

The latest testing results show that Auburn students showed significant academic improvement and significantly exceeded average scores on both CLA tasks. Those tasks provide a composite measure of students’ ability to perform a complex task, analytic-writing ability, ability to make an analytical argument and ability to logically critique an argument.

Clark said a notable find of the CLA was that Auburn students are making especially strong gains in analytic writing between their freshman and senior years. Explaining that analytic writing measures far more than literary skills, he added, “This section of the test measures learning gains in both written communication and critical thinking.”

Auburn began developing a writing initiative three years ago and added the Miller Writing Center last year after findings from its first CLA testing – administered when today’s seniors were freshmen – showed that many students were arriving on campus inadequately prepared for college-level writing. Three years later, the CLA tests of these students as seniors showed that they had not only acquired these skills during their time at Auburn but were now performing well above expectation.

“Auburn students are gaining a learning dividend,” said Sarah Newton, president pro tem of the Auburn Board of Trustees, speaking prior to the board’s meeting on Friday. “It’s a credit to members of the Auburn faculty and President Jay Gogue’s leadership in enriching the Auburn academic experience.”

The increased emphasis on analytical writing will help Auburn strengthen students’ capabilities even more in the future, Clark said. “The university’s comprehensive writing initiative is likely to continue to improve these gains over time.”

Although Auburn uses the results primarily for self-evaluation, the results also place the university in the top third of the 26 institutions that completed all phases of the four-year study. Ohio State University, Syracuse University, George Washington University and Loyola University of Chicago were among the other research institutions participating in the learning assessment. All types of higher education institutions, both public and private, were represented in the study, including liberal arts colleges, regional institutions and historically black institutions.

Clark said the CLA results confirm that students are making measurable progress at all participating institutions, with students gaining an average of 100 points on an SAT-equivalent scale from their college education. “All made gains, which is great news for anyone concerned about the value of higher education,” he said. “Attending college pays a dividend far beyond the earnings dividend.”

Contact: Deedie Dowdle, (334) 844-9999 (ddowdle@auburn.edu), or
Mike Clardy, (334) 844-9999 (clardch@auburn.edu)