Assessing Assessment

The Case for Assessment

“Assessment” has become a dirty word in higher education, but it’s much more than rubrics, forms and statistics, argues Matthew DeSantis.

July 19, 2018
 
 
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“Negative piece on assessment in today’s Inside Higher Ed,” the text from my wife read. I sighed and clicked the link. The piece was all too familiar as it rehashed many of the same talking points and straw men that had been articulated in prior opinion pieces.

Afterward, I dutifully checked the responses to the piece on an assessment Listserv and was surprised the tenor was so different from the reaction to previous opinion pieces. Instead of frustration and resilience, the reaction was closer to reconciliation and exhaustion. One of the posts struggled with not having the time or inclination to respond to every negative opinion about assessment. I didn’t disagree.

But then I thought back on my teaching career. I spent 10 years teaching political science before transitioning into assessment, and during that time, I prided myself on challenging students who made definitive statements without consideration for whether those statements were generalizable or case specific. And so I diligently started the process of trying to answer a few of the various questions that the author of the recent opinion piece had posed.

Before that, I will offer one brief disclaimer: I can only speak of my own experiences in assessment across three different institutions. I will do my best not to paint all faculty members or administrators with a broad brush, which is something that seems to be lacking in a great number of opinion pieces these days.

Do I care about the “action verbs” you used in the assessment report you wrote at 2 a.m.? Sometimes. More often than not, I’m concerned about the substance that follows those Bloom’s taxonomy verbs. When I initially meet with a department about assessment, I ask two basic questions: What do you want your students to learn and how do you know they are learning it?

From there, we engage in wide-ranging conversation about the balance faculty members try to strike between emphasizing disciplinary-specific knowledge and enhancing translatable skills like critical thinking and effective written communication. Interestingly, department faculty can often disagree over the proper balance. The result of that dialogue is a list of learning outcomes that provides the department direction about what they seek to impart to students by the time they graduate. Yes, the development of those outcomes is appealing to me, but it is also appealing to prospective students and parents who want to know what they will receive for their increasingly expensive higher education.

Am I truly interested in assessing students’ learning of your subject? Yes. I love facilitating student learning. That love is what ultimately drove me to assessment. As a faculty member, I could impact the learning taking place in my classroom; however, as I started working in assessment, I realized that I could provide faculty members from across the institution with the support and resources needed to improve learning in their classrooms, as well. It’s rewarding to read departmental reports that talk about continuous improvement strategies that truly have improved student learning, retention and graduation.

Can you implement new teaching innovations you learned at a workshop or from a colleague without going through rounds of approvals? Of course. Part of being a good faculty member is actively seeking out ways to improve your craft and adapting effective teaching strategies from each other. Sometimes those improvements take place at the spur of the moment, and other times, they are planned several semesters in advance. In either case, assessment should not be the enemy of innovation. The focus of assessment is documenting those innovations and determining their relative effectiveness. Hopefully, after documentation and analysis, the department can present its findings to Professor Droning On to demonstrate how much better their innovation is in comparison to lecturing for three hours per week and giving multiple-choice tests.

Do I want you to bury evidence of deficiencies in learning among graduating seniors? No, in fact, I would like for you to do the exact opposite. I want those reports to be highlighted, so that as a department and institution, we can work toward improving the mastery of learning outcomes by graduating seniors.

Should students fail the course and be deprived graduation based upon that knowledge? I can’t say. That depends entirely on how your outcomes are structured within your course grading scheme. I have had students who struggled to write effectively but excelled in other areas of the course, such as classroom discussion or group projects, that allowed them to earn a passing grade. I would never deprive a student the ability to matriculate through their education as long as they met the standards put forth in my syllabus. But that does not mean we should idly sit by and not try to improve the situation.

Do we assess assessment? Constantly. It is an ever-present topic of conversation at every assessment conference, and it is frequently written about in assessment journals and reviewed in-house at every institution where I have worked. We question ourselves on a daily basis. Is the assessment process faculty friendly? How can we make the reports more meaningful? Can we get feedback to faculty members more quickly? Has student learning been positively impacted by the continuous improvement strategies implemented the previous year?

In closing, “assessment” has become a dirty word in higher education. That’s understandable. Faculty members have little formal training relating to assessment. We are subject-matter experts who, in many cases, had our minds filled with knowledge in graduate school and then were pushed in front of a classroom and told to teach. Along the way, we picked up pedagogical strategies, but I admit to being perplexed the first time someone came to me with an assessment plan.

However, rather than lamenting my 6-6 teaching load, I took the opportunity to learn and found that assessment was a way I could improve as an educator. At its core, assessment is about determining what your students are learning and figuring out how to take a more active role in facilitating that learning. Assessment is so much more than rubrics, forms and statistics. It is a way of knowing, which is why it belongs in higher education.

Bio

Matthew DeSantis is assistant director for institutional assessment at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Tex.

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