How to Talk About Assessment

At many interviews for faculty jobs these days, you'll be asked about assessment. Melissa Dennihy offers some ideas on how to answer.

June 10, 2015

Assessment is a hot topic in higher education today, and in interviews with search committees and administrators alike, it’s possible you’ll be asked about it, especially at public institutions. But what is assessment and how should you talk about it during interviews? Here’s how to prepare and, more importantly, how to consider the role you want assessment to play in your teaching.

Let’s address the most obvious questions first: What is assessment and why is it important?

Associated with other buzzwords such as “accountability” and “transparency,” assessment is intended to determine what students are actually learning -- and not learning -- and how that compares to objectives established by the instructor, department and institution. Assessing student learning encourages instructors to regularly evaluate and improve curriculum and teaching approaches in order to best serve their students.

However, assessment is also about being able to prove the effectiveness of the educational process to others: instructors and departments must hold themselves accountable for their own objectives and outcomes, but institutions are also accountable to external reviewers, state education departments, the federal government and even students and their parents -- the “customers” who want to know what they are getting for the money they pay. Accrediting agencies have placed increasing emphasis on assessment in recent years and, as such, it has become not only a pedagogical concern, but an issue of great importance to administrators. Assessment matters at a variety of levels, from the individual classroom to the institution as a whole.

Since assessment is conducted at multiple levels, from course specific to departmental to collegewide assessment, issues of departmental or institutional assessment may come up in an interview, especially if you are interviewing with an administrator or interviewing for an administrative position yourself. However, it is much more likely that interview questions for a faculty position will focus on how you conduct assessment in your own courses, so be most prepared to talk specifically about that. Here are a few suggestions for preparing to discuss assessment:

  • At the most basic level, assessment means anything you use to evaluate student learning, so start by taking stock of the types of assessment tools you use in your classes: quizzes, exams, essays, portfolios, group projects, oral presentations, etc. Consider why you think these are effective ways of demonstrating and evaluating student learning. Bear in mind that assessment is not just about giving students grades, but helping to further the learning process. In discussing the types of assessment tools you use, you should be able to explain how these allow you to identify students’ strengths and weaknesses and offer students feedback and suggestions for improvement.
  • Since assessment should help students continually improve throughout a course, many instructors include both low- and high-stakes forms of assessment in their courses. The former provide opportunities for students to produce ungraded work used to help them move toward a successful performance on a related higher-stakes assignment. Consider the roles of low- and high-stakes assignments in your own courses, and, during interviews, explain how your assignments are sequenced so that assessment is continuous and ongoing, rather than specific to one assignment. This gives students multiple opportunities to improve throughout the semester, while providing the instructor with an ongoing and more comprehensive understanding of student learning and of problems that need to be addressed.
  • In addition to being prepared to explain your own approaches to assessment, it’s worth knowing how the department you are interviewing with conducts assessment and what its faculty members look to assess. Find out as much as you can about the learning objectives of courses you would be expected to teach and the types of assessment used by department faculty (start by browsing the course catalog and any syllabi posted on the department website or faculty pages). If you learn, for example, that in-class exams are commonly used, you may not want to answer a question about assessment by stating that you never give exams -- but you might explain how and why you think other forms of assessment can supplement exams to provide a broader evaluation of students’ abilities. In other words, give a sense of your approaches to assessing student learning while also demonstrating how those approaches can fit with the department’s practices and objectives.
  • Talk about peer and self-assessment. Rather than focusing only on how you assess your students’ performances, explain how students in your courses learn to assess their own work and the work of their classmates. How do students develop the ability to evaluate their performance in the course and to recognize and work toward course objectives? Discussing self- and peer-assessment tools you use in your classrooms shows that you facilitate self-directed and collaborative student learning. Having students assess their own work also ensures that students understand what we are asking them to learn and how we are evaluating their performance, forms of transparency that are critical for student success.
  • Since transparency is a particularly important aspect of assessment, interviewers may ask whether you use rubrics or consider a rubric to be a valuable assessment tool. Especially when it comes to high-stakes assignments -- the assignments students receive a final grade on -- it is important to make transparent the process by which you arrived at those grades, and the criteria used to evaluate students’ work. Rubrics clearly indicate the relationship between the grade earned and the degree to which the student fulfilled the expectations of the assignment. Rubrics also provide transparency to external parties interested in what you look for in student performance and how you maintain consistency when evaluating student work. If you do use rubrics, consider including a sample rubric in the teaching portfolio you bring to your interview. If you don’t use rubrics, be sure you are able to discuss alternative methods you use to clearly communicate objectives and expectations to students.
  • As important as communicating with students about assessment is communicating with other faculty. If asked about assessment in an interview, avoid discussing it as an individual activity carried out in isolation by the course instructor. Instead, indicate that you view assessment as a collaborative process where instructors recognize shared departmental objectives and discuss what is and isn’t working in their courses and for their students. Dialogue among faculty members is critical to assessment’s wider applicability; conversations about successes and failures in our individual classrooms add up to a bigger picture of how well the department as a whole is meeting its objectives.
  • Speaking of failures, it can be useful to discuss in an interview how you have used assessment to adjust and improve your teaching. You might give an example of an approach or assignment you changed or adapted after realizing, through assessing student work, that this approach wasn’t really working. Assessment of student learning is most valuable when it is acted upon by the instructor, used to make changes or improvements that lead to better outcomes in the future.

Finally, the simplest question you may be asked about assessment might be the most difficult to answer: What is it that you assess? Your answer to this question will depend partially upon the courses you teach, as well as the learning objectives of the department and institution you are interviewing with, but it is also largely a matter of assessing your own priorities as a teacher. What do you want students to learn in your classrooms, and why? What are the skills, values and behaviors you hope students will take away from your courses?

Assessment asks us to evaluate not only student performance, but our own goals and expectations as instructors, sometimes forcing us to ask ourselves difficult questions. In my own discipline of English, for example, an assessment-related question might be as simple -- and complex -- as “What makes someone a good writer?”

Conversations about assessment aren’t just about objectives or outcomes but are also about what we value and privilege in our classrooms and our teaching, and why. Successfully discussing assessment during an interview therefore requires more than just reviewing the department’s curriculum or the institution’s general education objectives -- it also necessitates thinking carefully and critically about your own values and goals as an educator.


Melissa Dennihy is an assistant professor of English at Queensborough Community College of the City University of New York.


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