Assess what we’ve got, baby ready or not

No one told me about assessment when I was in graduate school. I can only guess as to whether my professors talked about it. They certainly didn’t ask their teaching assistants to think about it. So when I began teaching full-time, and I began to hear about assessment, I was confused.

Assessment? Sure: that’s just grading, right? Yes, I was planning on grading my students. Oh, that’s not what assessment is?

Like it or not, assessment is now an integral part of higher education, and faculty feel pressured to focus on assessment, even if they are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with the vocabulary of assessment. If faculty do know what assessment is, they may very well resent it, seeing it as an administrative imposition that draws time and attention away from their real work of teaching.

Most basically, assessment is a continuous, cyclical process in which faculty identify what they hope students will learn (from an assignment, a course, a major, or the complete curriculum), teach in ways that help students learn those things, develop means of determining how well students learned those things, and then use the findings to make any necessary changes that will help match goals, pedagogy, and learning more effectively.

Done right, assessment is not a pointless exercise in submitting jargon-filled reports just to jump through an administrative hoop. Nor does it necessarily stifle the spirit of free, undirected inquiry. It is instead–well, read to the end for the best justification of assessment.

Whether you’re unused to thinking in terms of assessment, skeptical of the merits of assessment, or an advanced-level assessor, you may find these resources helpful or interesting:

  • Macalester College has compiled a good introduction to assessment lingo.
  • King’s developed a reputation over the last few decades for leadership on assessment. Read up on that here, and find out more about assessment at King’s.
  • Gerald Graff, past president of the Modern Language Association, responds to critics who allege that outcomes assessment is a conservative plot to undermine the ideals of higher education. To Graff, assessment reveals the essentially collaborative nature of our work as teachers.
  • Linda Suskie, currently a vice president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, is among the leading authorities on college-level assessment. Read her article in Inside Higher Ed (and, for criticism of the whole assessment enterprise, read the comments on the article) or her book, Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide.
  • The Association of American Colleges & Universities’ LEAP initiative has resources for assessment rookies and veterans alike, including a set of rubrics for assessing some key cross-disciplinary skills. (King’s is a member of the LEAP Campus Action Network.)

Finally, Melanie Booth, at the University of Venus blog, offers what may be the best reason to take assessment seriously:

Perhaps what’s getting in our way of creating a culture that values assessment is how we think about the work of assessment to begin with. We hear that we have to do it for accreditation and/or because our institution’s administration wants us to engage in evidence-based improvement processes blah blah blah blah blah…. But what if we thought about doing it because we care about our students and their learning?

We care enough about our disciplines that we’re willing to undergo the indignities of graduate school and the academic job market so we can then pass those disciplines’ knowledge, skills, and attitudes on to students. Assessment can help us find out how well that’s working–how well we’re achieving our long-held ideals.

(And at the risk of ruining an already weak joke, the post’s title is a pun on the lyrics to Madonna’s “Express Yourself.”)

What’s your relationship to assessment: friendly, fraught, nonexistent? Do you think in terms of assessment? Do you have additional resources on assessment worth sharing?

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2 responses to “Assess what we’ve got, baby ready or not

  1. When I was in southeastern Wisconsin, I remember Milwaukee’s Alverno College having a very strong reputation for its creative approaches to assessment. I just found an Inside Higher Ed article by an Alverno philosophy professor describing their approach. So if you want it right now (ha, ha–right back at ya with the Madonna), you can find it at: http://www.insidehighered.com/views/2007/08/14/engelmann

  2. I like this point: “Now, there is a sense in which this is how all good teachers improve their teaching — seeing whether and how students are learning and fine-tuning their teaching in response.” That, I think, is all assessment needs to be. If faculty look at assessment in this fashion, then they need worry a bit less about assessment being an administrative imposition. Here’s another good blog entry about studying one’s own teaching, first to improve one’s effectiveness, later perhaps to educate one’s peers through publication: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/how-to-study-your-own-teaching-and-why-you-might-want-to/34856