National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment |

National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

Institute Occasional Paper 11: Gaining Ground: The Role of Institutional Research in Assessing Student Outcomes and Demonstrating Institutional Effectiveness


Community College Paper

Volkwein, J. F. (2011, September). Gaining Ground: The Role of Institutional Research in Assessing Student Outcomes and Demonstrating Institutional Effectiveness (NILOA Occasional Paper No.11). Urbana, IL: University for Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.


The work of institutional researchers is gaining importance on today's campuses. Included in institutional researchers wide range of duties is a significant role in student outcomes assessment. In this eleventh NILOA Occasional Paper, J. Fredericks Volkwein leads us through their roles. Analysis of data obtained from the Center for the Study of Higher Education at Penn State’s survey “National Survey of Institutional Research Offices in 2008-09,” gathered from over 3,300 professional staff is included. Overall, this occasional paper helps to better understand the role, responsibilities and challenges faced by institutional researchers in relation to student outcomes assessment on their campuses. The foreword for this paper is written by Randy Swing, Executive Director, Association for Institutional Research.

Paper Abstract

Student learning outcomes are central to the purpose of educational organizations, and the assessment of these outcomes supplies some of the most important evidence demonstrating institutional effectiveness. Drawing on the results of a national survey of institutional research (IR) offices, this paper describes the varied organizational characteristics and analytical activities of these offices, giving special attention to IR's role in assessing student outcomes. The IR profession has evolved over the past 50 years. At many institutions of higher education, IR now serves as a major vehicle for gathering and delivering evidence of educational effectiveness. The national survey data show that most IR offices in higher education engage in a collage of outcomes assessment activities. This paper, first, describes the variable maturity among IR offices and summarizes the roles and responsibilities of IR staff. Second, the paper identifies some of the complexities and challenges associated with assessment and evaluation, including the important role of accreditation as a driver of assessment activity. Last, the paper suggests some strategies for demonstrating institutional effectiveness and building a culture of evidence.

Biography of the Author

Dr. J. Fredericks Volkwein has a forty-year career as a researcher, administrator, and faculty member. He holds a B.A. from Pomona College and a Ph.D. from Cornell University. With interests in policy analysis and organizational effectiveness, he is especially well known for his studies and workshops on accreditation, assessing student learning outcomes, alumni studies, strategic planning and enrollment management, state regulation, and institutional research. He has produced more than 100 journal articles, research reports, conference papers, and book chapters. His most recent volume is "Assessing Student Outcomes: Why, Who, What, How?," Assessment Supplement, New Directions for Institutional Research, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass (2010).



"Like most aspects of higher education, there is great diversity in how colleges and universities approach the assessment of student learning. But central to all credible assessment efforts is the use of data – both quantitative and qualitative – to document the degree of learning achieved by students."

Randy Swing

Randy Swing
Executive Director
Association for Institutional Research