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National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment

Institute Occasional Paper 13: From Denial to Acceptance: The Stages of Assessment


Miller, M. A. (2012, January). From Denial to Acceptance: The Stages of Assessment. (NILOA Occasional Paper No. 13). Urbana, IL: University for Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.


Margaret A. Miller, editor of Change magazine and a national thought leader in the field of student learning outcomes assessment provides an overview of how the assessment discussion has evolved in the past 30 years.

Paper Abstract

In some ways, the assessment movement over the last 25 years is similar to what individuals experience as they move through Kübler-Ross’s (1997) stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Articles on assessment published in Change between 1986 and 2011 illustrate the analogy, since the magazine has been a congenial venue for papers focused on learning in higher education in general and the assessment of student learning in particular. During the initial denial stage, faculty and staff could not understand why assessment was necessary, which led to anger that outside forces were trying to mandate it. However, demands for accountability continued to create pressure for colleges and universities to assess student learning, leading institutions to try bargaining with state officials and regional accreditation agencies. Unflattering national evaluations of American higher education such as Measuring Up and the Spellings Commission report propelled many institutions into depression. But eventually, reluctantly, slowly, and unevenly, many institutions came to an acceptance of assessment and its role in higher education.

Biography of the Author


Margaret A. Miller is a professor in the Center for the Study of Higher Education at the Curry School of Education at the University of Virginia, president emerita of the American Association for Higher Education, and editor-in- chief of Change magazine. Over the past 15 years she has worked, spoken, and written in national and international fora on topics such as college- level learning and how to evaluate it, change in higher education, the public responsibilities of higher education, the scholarship of teaching and learning, post-tenure review, campus governance, the educational uses of technology, electronic portfolios, the meaning of the baccalaureate, access, and indicators of institutional effectiveness.



"Since the mid-1980s, then, at least in part and with a lot of backsliding, we have generally passed through the stages of grief into something like acceptance—acceptance of the need to examine our practices and to communicate about and use the results."

Margaret Miller
Margaret Miller
University of Virginia