Exploring the Complexity of Student Learning Outcome Assessment Practices Across Multiple Libraries


  • Donna Harp Ziegenfuss University of Utah
  • Stephen Borrelli Penn State University Libraries




student learning outcomes, collaborative research, activity theory


Objectives – The purpose of this collaborative qualitative research project, initiated by the Greater Western Library Alliance (GWLA), was to explore how librarians were involved in the designing, implementing, assessing, and disseminating student learning outcomes (SLOs) in GWLA member academic libraries. The original objective of the research was to identify library evaluation/assessment practices at the different libraries to share and discuss by consortia members at a GWLA-sponsored Student Learning Assessment Symposium in 2013. However, findings raised new questions and areas to explore beyond student learning assessment, and additional research was continued by two of the GWLA collaborators after the Symposium. The purpose of this second phase of research was to explore the intersection of library and institutional contexts and academic library assessment practices.

Methods – This qualitative research study involved a survey of librarians at 23 GWLA member libraries, about student learning assessment practices at their institutions. Twenty follow-up interviews were also conducted to further describe and detail the assessment practices identified in the survey. Librarians with expertise in library instruction, assessment, and evaluation, either volunteered or were designated by their Dean or Director, to respond to the survey and participate in the interviews. Interview data were analyzed by seven librarians, across six different GWLA libraries, using constant comparison methods (Strauss & Corbin, 2014). Emerging themes were used to plan a GWLA member Symposium. Based on unexpected findings, after the Symposium, two GWLA researchers continued the analysis using a grounded theory methodology to re-examine the data and uncover categorical relationships and conceptual coding, and to explore data alignment to theoretical possibilities.

Results – Seventeen categories and five themes emerged from the interview data and were used to create a 3-part framework for describing and explaining library SLO assessment practices. The themes were used to plan the GWLA Assessment Symposium. Through additional qualitative grounded theory data analysis, researchers also identified a core variable, and data were re-evaluated to verify an alignment to Engeström’s Activity and Expansion Theories (Engeström, 2001, 2004).

Conclusions – The findings of this multi-phased qualitative study discovered how contextual, structural, and organizational factors can influence how libraries interact and communicate with college departments, and the larger institution about student learning outcomes and assessment. Viewing library and campus interaction through the activity theory lens can demonstrate how particular factors might influence library collaboration and interaction on campuses. Institutional contexts and cultures, campus-wide academic priorities, leadership at the library level, and changing roles of librarians were all themes that emerged from this study that are important factors to consider when planning the design, implementation, assessment and dissemination of library SLOs.


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Author Biographies

Donna Harp Ziegenfuss, University of Utah

Interim Head of Scholarship and Education Services

Stephen Borrelli, Penn State University Libraries

Head of Library Assessment




How to Cite

Ziegenfuss, D. H., & Borrelli, S. (2016). Exploring the Complexity of Student Learning Outcome Assessment Practices Across Multiple Libraries. Evidence Based Library and Information Practice, 11(2), 9–27. https://doi.org/10.18438/B8SG94




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