Rethinking Assessment

Our school is engaging in a major effort to revamp and improve institutional assessment.  Like many schools, we have been “doing” assessment for about 15 years.  Or I should say, we’ve been going through the motions.  Assessment was viewed as a necessary response to an external mandate from the State (we are a public institution) and from our accrediting body.  But few academic units took assessment very seriously.  In general, we did some minimal assessment, then filed the results away without thinking much about them.   Real assessment requires careful thought about the findings to guide changes in our actions to improve our programs, something we haven’t done.  In other words, we’ve been faking it.

And why not?  Doing assessment well takes significant time and effort.  There were no rewards for doing it well—instead it was an unfunded mandate that had no apparent benefit to academic units.  There was another problem as well, something perhaps unique to academia.  College professors are assumed to be excellent teachers, by virtue of their terminal degree.  Never mind that the Ph.D. is a research degree and that until recent years, almost no Ph.D. programs trained their students to teach.  Colleagues have told me in all seriousness “Why should I change the way I teach, when I’ve been successful all my career?”  It remains an axiom of our profession that faculty are good teachers, without any evidence to support that.

Assessment appears threatening to many faculty.  Perhaps this is because it could reveal them to be less than excellent teachers.  Perhaps deep down, faculty realize that they received little training in how to teach as graduate students.  Additionally, few faculty are familiar with the research in learning and cognition that has occurred in recent decades, or with pedagogical research in their fields.  Why should they, since there is little reward to improved teaching.  After all, if we are all excellent teachers, there is no room for improvement.

Do all academics teach at Lake Wobegon U?  Is it even credible to believe that however good we are as teachers, we can’t improve?  I don’t think so. As professionals, we have a responsibility to assess how well we are doing and to make improvements where we can.  Most faculty realize this.  It’s not enough to be good at what we do, though.  As a public institution, we have an obligation to provide evidence of our teaching effectiveness.

Admittedly, excellent teaching is only one input towards student learning.  Ultimately, what students learn depends on their efforts.  However, shouldn’t we want to know how much our students are learning?  Even if a lack of learning is not our fault, wouldn’t we want to know a problem exists so that we can take steps to correct it?

A first step in our new initiative is to develop a vision for our goal of creating a “culture of assessment.”  What would such a culture look like?  Here are some thoughts:

Assessment is viewed fundamentally as being about student learning, or more precisely, about improving student learning, rather than being about faculty evaluation.  Administrators (e.g. Deans and department chairs) agree and commit to never using program assessment for individual faculty evaluation.

Assessment is viewed as something departments do, where every faculty member has a responsibility to contribute.  Assessment is not something which is only the responsibility of one or two department members.

All departments have a well-defined mission (and a list of learning outcomes) that is appropriate to their discipline.  Faculty in each department buy-in to their mission and understand what the learning outcomes are.  They understand how each course they teach contributes to  the learning outcomes and they accept responsibility for helping students achieve those outcomes as part of their courses.

Each teacher reflects (at least annually) on how well each course they taught achieved its learning goals.  Program assessment is conducted as a regular, reoccurring cycle (e.g. annually) similarly to how course scheduling is done (semi-annually, or three times a year counting summer session).  The assessment process includes a departmental analysis of the assessment results and a departmental discussion of what the results mean and how the curriculum and teaching of courses should be changed.  While the analysis may be done by a subset of the department, the discussion should include all members of the department.

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1 Response to Rethinking Assessment

  1. Bill Goffe says:

    Your description of how faculty view assessment and what might be done to interest them in it seems spot on. Faculty also might be leery due to a concern that students really aren’t learning that much. On most campuses I’ve been on, a common faculty complaint is how little students take from one course to the next (even saw this in an article about MIT students the other day: http://tech.mit.edu/V130/N49/normandin.html ; in that case, the faculty actually did something about it). Thus, might faculty be concerned about what they might find?

    I also liked this view of assessment, from “Why Are We Assessing?” http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2010/10/26/suskie (attributed to Doug Eder):
    1. What have our students learned?
    2. Are we satisfied with what they’ve learned?
    3. If not, what are we doing about it?

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