A student record a student can love

April 19, 2016
  • Comprehensive Record
  • Comprehensive Learner Record
  • Comprehensive Student Record
Photograph of two students working.

How can student records most accurately reflect student learning?--That’s the question driving a pilot project funded by a grant from the Lumina Foundation and spearheaded by AACRAO and NASPA: Student Affairs Professionals in Higher Education.

The project is focused on developing comprehensive student records that document evidence of student learning and achievement beyond traditional course names, credits, and grades. The current project includes eleven higher education institutions* – two- and four-year, public and private – that are already developing competency-based education approaches to education and/or documenting co-curricular experiences.

AACRAO is publishing a series of articles detailing the makeup of each model record, the campus-wide collaboration required to enact change, and the goals each model is designed to achieve. For this article, we spoke with Thomas Black, Associate Vice Provost & University Registrar at Stanford University.

(Previously in the series: Elon University’s co-curricular model.)


When applying for jobs, students need a document that helps them build a narrative about their qualifications.

“Official transcripts are designed for faculty,” said Thomas Black, Associate Vice Provost and University Registrar at Stanford University. “They know the curriculum, they can look at a record in progress and know exactly where the student is in his or her course of studies.”

But the traditional transcript isn’t easy to translate into a professional setting. The employer wants to know: What skills does the applicant have, and how did he or she acquire them? A transcript of grades in classes the student took doesn’t tell the hiring officer what he or she needs to know about the applicant’s skills and abilities.

“The learner has to present themselves to a third party—an employer,” Black said. “Our job is to empower students to be able to effectively express what they know in an appropriate context.”

The pilot student record program at Stanford University – the “certified electronic certificate program”— aims to arm students with more consumable information about the path they took to get their credentials. That means that the information in the student records must be both:

  • Easy to interpret. Including skills/outcomes rather than course names on the comprehensive record, allowing employers to see at a glance what capacities the applicant has developed and where he or she learned them.
  • Easy to communicate. Using a digital file with an electronic signature, making it easier for students to convey their credentials to prospective employers and to share them on career-building sites. [View example file by downloading the PDF at the end of this article.]

Tech specs: Digital docs

“One part of our project was to embed the data file in the artifact,” Black said. “Our goal was to create a unique electronic credential that had within it information about what the learner achieved or acquired or mastered during the learning experience.”

The first page of the certificate [downloadable below] is the “art of the certificate,” as Black terms it—the student’s name, the name of the program, and the signatories. The second page explains the validations. To validate the credentials, the user enters a serial number in an encrypted, Stanford-hosted domain to view:

  • Who was given the award.
  • What the program was
  • The entire contents of the program expressed as learning outcomes.

“You open the PDF and can see that it has been digitally signed—and by whom, when,” Black said. “The chief value of the digital signature is its non-repudiation characteristic. It’s backed by the authority of the signer.”

Also, the PDF certificate contains a data file that articulates the program and course learning outcomes.  Recently, the data format schema was sent to PESC, one of the standards bodies supporting the exchange of data in secondary and postsecondary education, to establish a credential standard. By standardizing the data format, we hope that this will prompt recipients of the certificate to creatively use the data for the benefit of the learners or the enterprises in which the learners are engaged.

One use case could be for the learner herself.  Imagine being able to import certificate information in electronic portfolios without having to re-type everything.

“It could be a powerful way encourage the learner to integrate and reinforce knowledge,” Black said.

The certificate may also help companies keep a more accurate HR record on the learner regarding any learning, training, or program the company sponsored.

Beyond credits: Learning outcomes

Beginning about twelve months ago, Stanford began offering this pilot model record for the Graduate School of Business’ LEAD Certificate online program. Rather than grades, the record focuses on outcomes. The first electronic certificate was awarded to 73 students. Since then, half have downloaded it, and another twenty or so students have downloaded it more than once. Some of the students voluntarily posted their certificates to Facebook profiles to celebrate their achievements.

“It’s still early to determine how people will use it,” Black said. “But the principal purpose of this kind of artifact is to make explicit what people have taken away from any learning program, and give the learner a document that is useful to them.”

Each course is associated with three to five outcomes, viewable on the record’s validation page. The LEAD Certificate, an eight-course program, identifies over twenty skills that the student has acquired. For example, the skill “Critical Analytical Thinking” is defined as:

  • Being able to form well-reasoned arguments and communicate those arguments to others
  • Using quantitative and qualitative data in decision making
  • Evaluating and use evidence to draw conclusions, and so on.

“A lot of people use that phrase – ‘critical thinking’ – but what does it mean?” Black asked. “In this certificate, we tell you what it means in the context of the LEAD program. The learner can say ‘I am schooled in ‘Critical Thinking’ and have the wherewithal through documentation to be explicit about what they have practiced and acquired and what they can replicate on the job.”

Instead of the Carnegie Unit, faculty have assigned Continuing Education Units (CEUs) for the courses; one CEU equals ten hours of participation.

Looking ahead: Communicating the value of an education

“Generally speaking, I think this is a step toward better communicating the value of a degree,” Black said. “Students as well as institutions are currently trending toward STEM fields because those positions are in high demand. As a result, students are becoming more instrumental in their major choice—choosing those majors that have a strong correlation to employment.

“But many employers in both STEM and non-STEM industries recognize the value of a liberal education and the importance of professional and interpersonal capacities associated with teamwork, leadership, ethical reasoning, and intercultural knowledge," he added. "Having validated documentation of how and where these capacities were developed provides graduates with a strong foundation from which to articulate and demonstrate how their learning can be applied new situations and environments.”

Black and the rest of the Lumina Project Team at Stanford--Helen Chen, Ph.D., Designing Education Lab, Office of the University Registrar; Mei Hung, Programming Services, Office of the University Registrar; and Audrey Witters, Managing Director of Online Executive Education, Stanford Graduate School of Business--expressed appreciation for the associations' support.

"It is gratifying to have the support of the Lumina Foundation through its grant to the organizations of AACRAO and NASPA," Black said. "Through these organizations, we hope that more professionals will give serious consideration to the diverse instances and opportunities where students are learning important skills in conjunction or in parallel with their formal education. These collective efforts serve to advance more effective and meaningful documentation of the breadth and depth of higher education."



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