May 29, 2010

What is a "performance indicator" anyway?

In the discussion of the difference between data and information in my previous post, I indicated that in order to have meaningful data collection around student outcomes it needed to be focused on student achievement of specific performance indicators that define the program outcome.  What is a performance indicator?  The best way to think about performance indicators is to relate them to the concept of leading indicators used in economics.  Through experience, it has been found that there are certain characteristics that are the best indicators of the overall health of the economy.  Taken together, these indicators can provide information about the current state of the economy and also serve to predict future economic trends.  Although one could argue that there are lots of economic factors that one could look at to describe the state of the economy, experience has found that there are certain leading indicators that serve as the best describe the state of the economy.

So it is with outcomes of student learning.  A program does not need to look at every possible skill or knowledge element related to a given student outcome to know how well the program is doing on student attainment of the outcome.  Faculty need to have a good understand of their students, their faculty, their program educational objectives (what students should be able to do AFTER graduation), and the needs of their constituents and ask themselves, "How will we know when our students have achieved the desired outcome(s) which will prepare them for early career success?" 

 Every program in any discipline (not just technical disciplines) has as one of its student outcomes that they would like their students to be "effective communicators."  What does that mean?  Does being an "effective communicator" mean the same thing for a communications major as it does for a European history major?  Does it mean the same thing for a civil engineering major as it does for a chemical engineering major?  Does "writing skills" mean the same thing for a civil engineering program at X University as it does for the civil engineering program at "Y" college.  Probably not.  In order to develop meaningful performance indicators we need to think about how students will be using their communication skills related to the profession.  Performance indicators should be developed which identify the focus of instruction (content referent) and the level at which students should demonstrate their performance (cognitive/affective level).   Here is ONE example of performance indicators for "effective writing skills" (your indicators will undoubtedly look different).
  • Students consistently use the rules of standard English (application level)
  • Word choices are appropriate to the audience (evaluation level)
  • Supporting details utilize appropriate graphical representation (application level)
  • Organizational pattern is logical (application level)
Are there other performances we could use as indicators?  Absolutely.  However, we are only looking for those indicators which the faculty believe are the leading indicators of student performance related to the writing skills.  Measures are taken on the indicators indicate the degree to which the outcome is being met and provide information that can be used to improve student performance.

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