National Institute for Learning & Outcomes Assessment: 'Small but Mighty'

by Tom Hanlon  /   Feb 21, 2020

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The NILOA team, including Executive Director Natasha Jankowski, center.

The National Institute for Learning and Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) just won a national award for its contributions to higher education. This streamlined institute is having a major impact on the assessment field.

At first, Natasha Jankowski thought the email was a prank.

It arrived December 31, 2019, from a colleague who told her that the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) had just won a prestigious national award. He must be in a festive holiday mood, she thought.

Jankowski, NILOA’s executive director, emailed her colleague back, something to the effect of “Ha ha, very funny,” to which he quickly responded, “I’m not joking.”

Indeed, NILOA earned the 2020 Contribution to Higher Education Award, given by the American College Personnel Association (ACPA), which advances student affairs and engages students for a lifetime of learning and discovery. Jankowski travels to Nashville in early March to receive the award.

“We are so delighted and humbled,” says Jankowski. “We see great value in our work, but it’s always gratifying to see others value it as well.” The award was especially delightful, she adds, because it is coming from a student affairs association. “Most of the time, people think of assessment as an academic activity only,” she says. “Student affairs are intricately important and an active partner in our work. To have a student affairs association see and honor that is extra exciting.”

“The Online Go-To Resource for All Things Assessment”

NILOA, founded in 2008 by George Kuh of Indiana University, with Stanley Ikenberry of the University of Illinois as co-principal investigator, is a joint venture between the two universities, with the University of Illinois serving as the organizational home with fiscal responsibilities. The institute has two primary purposes: to reflect assessment activity in US colleges and universities and to be a vehicle to discover and highlight promising practices that advance the quality of assessment work.

“We wanted to fill the gap by becoming the online go-to resource for all things assessment,” Jankowski says, “so that people in higher education would have one centralized location to find that information. And we wanted to answer those questions about how do we know our students have learned anything and that our class offerings are a worthwhile endeavor?”

To that end, NILOA produces free resources that, Jankowski says, have helped the institute meet and surpass its goals. “We have on average 40,000 visitors each month to our website who download materials to use in their practice,” she says. The institute also has a newsletter with an international circulation of 15,000, and its five-person staff on Illinois’ campus regularly presents at conferences, works with institutions and other partners, and oversees the professional development support that is provided by their cadre of 15 coaches who are spread across the nation at various universities.

“Last year, we had someone on a college campus every week of the year except for Christmas week,” she says.

While it’s true that NILOA churns out a significant amount of resources , none of it is available to the public before it is test driven.

“We don’t put anything out there that has not been field tested,” Jankowski says. “We actively involve the people who are doing the work and thinking and writing about it. We actively engage people in solving assessment problems with them.”

Impacting the Field in Multiple Ways

NILOA also does “theme work,” Jankowski says—for example, working with faculty to ensure that assignments are meaningful and produce the desired learning. “So, there’s a model and train-the-trainer materials for that,” she says.

NILOA has advanced the assessment field in other ways, including:

  • Creating a transparency framework to help institutions organize and present their assessment work for public consumption
  • Leading academic quality assurance work among multiple collaborating universities
  • Driving efforts behind regional accreditation
  • Compiling a library of exemplary assignments from various disciplines for faculty across the country to review, and creating venues where faculty can work together to fine-tune assignments to achieve learning outcomes
  • Becoming a Signature Institute Partner of the Assessment Institute, and helping to organize the Assessment Institute program
  • Developing an Emerging Learning System to improve learning outcomes and degree attainment

NILOA co-sponsors the Excellence in Assessment designation, which recognizes institutions across the nation that successfully integrate assessment practices, provide evidence of student learning outcomes, and use assessment results to guide institutional decision-making and improve student performance.

And the institute is constantly advocating for assessment—through its writings, its coaching on campuses across the nation, and its partnerships. For example, NILOA teamed up in 2017 with the Morehouse School of Medicine and Florida A&M University to create the Historically Black Colleges and Universities Collaborative for Excellence in Educational Quality Assurance. “We can be an amplifier for the work they are doing,” Jankowski says. “Most of them have not been invited to the proper stations. So we advocate for the variety and diversity and depth in the environment of assessment.”

It’s for all of these achievements that NILOA earned the 2020 Contribution to Higher Education Award from the ACPA.

“A Big Sandbox Where People Can Come and Play”

Jankowski has been with NILOA since its inception, first as a graduate student in 2008, then as director in 2016, now as executive director since 2019. “There were two of us, essentially in a closet, when we first started,” she laughs. “We’ve definitely grown. We’re still small, but we’re mighty. We like to say we’re a big sandbox where people can come and play and think through an idea.”

Nothing makes her day more than when she hears the responses of faculty across the country who use NILOA’s resources to their advantage. “We’ve had many responses from people who say ‘I didn’t want to keep doing this, but because of you guys, I kept going.’ That’s incredibly humbling,” she says.

“I love the work and the impact we’re having. I don’t think I could find another place where I could do the kinds of things that I do here.”