During a recent conversation about the value of comprehensive student learning assessment, one faculty member asked, “Why should we invest time, money, and effort to do something that we are essentially already doing every time we assign grades to student work?”
Most educational assessment zealots would respond by launching into a long explanation of the differences between tracking content acquisition and assessing skill development, the challenges of comparing general skill development across disciplines, the importance of demonstrating gains on student learning outcomes across an entire institution, blah blah blah (since these are my peeps, I can call it that). But from the perspective of an exhausted professor who has been furiously slogging through a pile of underwhelming final papers, I think the concern over a substantial increase in faculty workload is more than reasonable.
Why would an institution or anyone within it choose to be redundant?
If a college wants to know whether its students are learning a particular set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, it makes good sense to track the degree to which that is happening. But we make a grave mistake when we require additional processes and responsibilities from those “in the trenches” without thinking carefully about the potential for diminishing returns in the face of added workload (especially if that work appears to be frivolous or redundant). So it would seem to me that any conversation about assessing student learning should emphasize the importance of efficiency so that faculty and staff can continue to fulfill all the other roles expected of them.
This brings me back to what I perceive to be an odd disconnect between grading and outcomes assessment on most campuses. It seems to me that if grading and assessment are both intent on measuring learning, then there ought to be a way to bring them closer together. Moreover, if we want assessment to be truly sustainable (i.e., not kill our faculty), then we need to find ways to link, if not unify, these two practices.
What might this look like? For starters, it would require conceptualizing content learned in a course as the delivery mechanism for skill and disposition development. Traditionally, I think we’ve envisioned this relationship in reverse order – that skills and dispositions are merely the means for demonstrating content acquisition – with content acquisition becoming the primary focus of grading. In this context, skills and dispositions become a sort of vaguely mysterious redheaded stepchild (with apologies to stepchildren, redheads, and the vaguely mysterious). More importantly, if we are now focusing on skills and dispositions, this traditional context necessitates an additional process of assessing student learning.
However, if we reconceptualize our approach so that content becomes the raw material with which we develop skills and dispositions, we could directly apply our grading practices in the same way. One would assign a proportion of the overall grade to the necessary content acquisition, and the rest of the overall grade (apportioned as the course might require) to the development of the various skills and dispositions intended for that course. In addition to articulating which skills and dispositions each course would develop and the progress thresholds expected of students in each course, this means that we would have to be much more explicit about the degree to which a given course is intended to foster improvement in students (such as a freshman-level writing course) as opposed to a course designed for students to demonstrate competence (such as a senior-level capstone in accounting procedures). At an even more granular level, instructors might define individual assignments within a given course to be graded for improvement earlier in the term with other assignments graded for competence later in the term.
I recognize that this proposal flies in the face of some deeply rooted beliefs about academic freedom that faculty, as experts in their field, should be allowed to teach and grade as they see fit. When courses were about attaining a specific slice of content, every course was an island. Seventeenth-century British literature? Check. The sociology of crime? Check. Cell biology? Check.
In this environment, it’s entirely plausible that faculty grading practices would be as different as the topography of each island. But if courses are expected to function collectively to develop a set of skills and/or dispositions (e.g., complex reasoning, oral and written communication, intercultural competence), then what happens in each course is irrevocably tied to what happens in previous and subsequent courses. And it follows that the “what” and “how” of grading would be a critical element in creating a smooth transition for students between courses.
Now it would be naïve of me to suggest that making such a fundamental shift in the way that a faculty thinks about the relationship between courses, curriculums, learning and grading is somehow easy. Agreeing to a single set of institutionwide student learning outcomes can be exceedingly difficult, and for many institutions, embedding the building blocks of a set of institutional outcomes into the design and deliver of individual courses may well seem a bridge too far.
However, any institution that has participated in reaccreditation since the Spellings Commission in 2006 knows that identifying institutional learning outcomes and assessing students’ gains on those outcomes is no longer optional. So the question is no longer whether institutions can choose to engage in assessment; the question is whether student learning, and the assessment of it, becomes an imposition that squeezes out other important faculty and staff responsibilities or if there is a way to coopt the purposes of learning outcomes assessment into a process that already exists.
In the end it seems to me that we already have all of the mechanisms in place to embed robust learning outcomes assessment into our work without adding any new processes or responsibilities to our workload. However, to make this happen we need to 1) embrace all of the implications of focusing on the development of skills and dispositions while shifting content acquisition from an end to a means to a greater end, and 2) accept that the educational endeavor in which we are all engaged is a fundamentally collaborative one and that our chances of success are best when we focus our individual expertise toward our collective mission of learning.
Mark Salisbury is director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois. This essay is adapted from a post on his campus blog.
The preeminence of American science and technology is at risk and requires "bold investments," according to a report issued Friday by the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. The report notes that other countries are improving their research infrastructures, and that corporate support of research in the United States is increasingly focused on "near-term results," and not the basic research that can ultimately be more transformative.
Among the recommendations in the report;
Long-term growth in research and development spending such that it increases from 2.9 percent of gross domestic product to 3 percent.
New efforts by the administration and Congress to promote the "stability and predictability" of federal research support.
Immigration reform to make it possible for those from abroad who graduate with science and technology degrees to stay in the United States.
Significant improvements in science and technology education at the undergraduate level.
The American Federation of Teachers is proposing today a new national exam that all new teachers -- whether prepared by teacher education or other programs -- would have to take to be certified. "Just as in professions widely recognized for having a set of rigorous professional standards, such as law or medicine, teaching must raise standards for entry into the profession through a process similar to the bar process in law or the board process in medicine," says an AFT report, "Raising the Bar." "There has been significant debate about the quality of teacher preparation programs — both traditional and alternative. By requiring all teacher candidates to pass a universal assessment, we ensure all teachers who enter the classroom, whether trained in a traditional program or alternatively certified, meet the same standards of competence."
The report also calls for tougher standards for teacher education programs. "Completion of a set of program requirements including a minimum G.P.A., documentation and demonstration (through midpoint and exit examinations) of an understanding of fundamental or 'high-leverage' practices needed to be an effective beginning teacher, and at least a full year of successful clinical experience" are needed, the report says. It also says that new teacher education graduates should be able to demonstrate "mastery of subject-matter knowledge and competence in content-specific pedagogical approaches, as demonstrated by passage of a rigorous written exam."
Sharon P. Robinson, president and CEO of the American Association of Colleges for Teacher Education, offered this reaction via e-mail, to the AFT report: "AACTE is encouraged by the vision expressed by the American Federation of Teachers. A national 'bar' for teachers, including a teacher performance assessment, would represent the consensus of the broader professional community concerning novice teacher capabilities. The community of teacher educators, working with accomplished teachers across the country, has been working to create such an examination. edTPA has just been field tested by 7000 candidates from more than 160 institutions from 22 states. As we go forward, we look forward to working with the AFT and the full range of stakeholders in the education community to make the vision of a performance-based profession a reality."
At universities, teaching isn't highly valued, but at bachelor's institutions, research is highly valued, survey finds. And that research had better not be digital. Study also finds senior professors dissatisfied with academic leaders and students.
With the 2012 presidential campaign complete, the campaign for the Obama presidential library (and to raise money for it) has started, Politico reported. The University of Chicago -- where Obama taught and where Michelle Obama worked -- is considered the favorite. But Politico noted that the University of Hawaii is also making a strong push. Obama was born in Hawaii, his parents met at the university and his sister teaches there.
Chris Krumm, the son of a faculty member at Casper College, shot and killed his father with a bow and arrow on Friday while his father was teaching at the Wyoming institution, The Casper Star-Tribune. While the father -- Jim Krumm -- died from the wounds from that single shot, he struggled with his son, allowing students to escape the room. Just before coming to the classroom, Chris Krumm had gone to his father's home and killed Heidi Arnold, an instructor at Casper who lived with Jim Krumm. Chris Krumm killed himself after killing his father. Casper College has created a memorial page with information about the career of Jim Krumm, who taught computer science, and Arnold, who taught mathematics.