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Collaborative Outcomes-Based Assessment in the Library (Guest Post)

By Robin Ewing, Professor, Department Chair & Assessment Librarian, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota, USA

This post is based on a poster session presented at the 2018 Library Assessment Conference. 


Photo of Robin Ewing
Robin Ewing

Faculty librarians at St. Cloud State University (SCSU) developed a 3-credit course combining critical thinking and information literacy. LIB 280: Critical Thinking in Academic Research satisfies the critical thinking requirement of SCSU’s Liberal Education Program (LEP). In this course, students examine and evaluate critical reasoning in scholarly research, the construction of arguments, and the management of their own academic research. We offer the course in a variety of formats. We’ve had sections paired with English composition courses, sections in a learning community, sections in the Honors Program, and we regularly have an online section. 

Like other institutions, St. Cloud State University requires various levels of assessment. At the course level, instructors assess student learning and make adjustments to improve student learning. All campus programs, curricular and co-curricular, must have an assessment plan with a mission statement, student learning outcomes, and a timeline for assessing the outcomes. Our library has ten student learning outcomes. Additionally, departments with courses in the Liberal Education Program are required to assess those courses according to the student learning outcomes in the LEP. 


We determined the most efficient method to assess student learning outcomes and to identify areas for improvement was to develop a final project that addresses course, library, and LEP outcomes. With five different librarians involved, the simpler, the better. Fortunately, we have the environment of trust needed to establish common learning and teaching goals as well as assessment measures. A key component is while we use a common textbook, Asking the Right Questions by Browne and Keeley, we each determine the pedagogy for our section. Since we use different assignments and activities in our courses, the common final project helps us to measure student learning across the multiple sections of the course.

Once we decided to use a common final project, we collaboratively created the assignment. Then we met some more. And met some more. After many lively discussions, we decided to adapt an assignment from the instructor’s manual for our textbook. The original version addressed critical thinking but not the information literacy components of LIB 280. We then developed a grading rubric and piloted the assignment at the end of the Fall 2017 semester. We reviewed the assignment early in the Spring 2018 semester. The initial results were promising but we did encounter some student confusion about the assignment. In fact, several students completed more work than we asked for while other students didn’t adequately describe their search strategies. Based on this information, we substantially revised the directions and rubric and provided additional sample papers to guide students.

Final project assignment

The final project has three parts. In the first section, students review an issue presented in Congressional Digest. Students have a selection of topics to choose from including: Syrian refugees, Mexican border wall, opioid crisis, and school choice. We’ve modified the list of issues each semester with the goal of choosing topics students will want to research. Once they’ve chosen a topic, students analyze one pro and one con argument. We provide a list of questions to prompt this analysis. In the second part, students develop a research question based on the issue then locate and annotate scholarly resources that help answer the question. In the final section, students reflect on their research and analysis by responding to a list of questions. 


The final version of the assignment enables us to assess the following outcomes:

LIB 280 course earning outcomes: 

  • Recognize the elements of reasoning 
  • Analyze and evaluate arguments
  • Construct search strategies 
  • Identify and describe common fallacies 

Liberal Education outcomes: 

  • Distinguish between different types of reasoning
  • Analyze arguments
  • Identify and avoid fallacies 

Library student learning outcomes:

  • Identify different types of authority 
  • Execute a plan for locating information 

Next Steps

While we’re happy with the assignment, we still have work to do. We need to determine target levels for student achievement on this project. To prepare for that conversation, we’ll adapt the rubric by removing the grading elements then blind review student artifacts using the rubric. We will also undertake the critical project of revising the library’s student learning outcomes. Once we started to assess the SLOs as part of the library’s assessment plan, we quickly realized ten outcomes are too many, several outcomes overlapped, and the wording of some outcomes was stilted. Our goal is to reduce the number to 5-6 SLOs, reduce the overlap between outcomes, and write the outcomes in a more approachable language. Once we’ve revised the SLOs, we can focus on developing other courses and assessing our library instruction program. 


I want to acknowledge my colleagues who made this work possible: Cindy Gruwell, Michael Gorman, Melissa Prescott & Jennifer Quinlan.