Marc A. Lo is the Assistant Director for Assessment and Evaluation at the Sheridan Center for Teaching and Learning at Brown University.
Marc agreed to answer my questions about his role at Brown, and has also indicated that he will respond to any of your questions in the comments.
Question #1: When you try to explain your job to non-higher ed people, what do you say?
A: Succinctly? I partner academic departments and programs in finding answers to their questions about how innovations in teaching and curriculum affect the learning of the college students.
Question #2: What was your path to your gig at Brown? Are there other people like you at other centers for teaching and learning?
A: I am actually returning to Brown. I left a role in Campus Life to pursue my Ph.D. in Higher and Postsecondary Education at New York University. While my work in Campus Life was rewarding, the change made sense given questions I had about the connections between campus diversity, institutional policies and practices, and student learning/development.
Several of my projects as a doctoral fellow and research assistant required me to deepen the knowledge and the research skills to answer those questions. Perhaps the best known project I assisted with is How College Affects Students, a meta-synthesis of the most recent decade of research on college student learning and development. The project that drew me to my dissertation chair, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey, was/is an ongoing assessment of the interventions and campus climate conditions that promote the interfaith cooperation and the worldview development of college students.
I also spent some time supporting the Study of Integrated Living Learning Programs, which assesses the intersection of curricular and co-curricular spheres with student learning and development.
Lastly, my dissertation focused on the intersections of socioeconomic status with various social group memberships in experiences with campus climates.
Given my scholarly focus on college student learning and development and the contexts in which that growth occurs, an assessment role in a center for teaching and learning was a nearly seamless shift given similar epistemologies. There are several folks with backgrounds akin to my own working in related capacities around the country, and a recent alum from my program at NYU landed such a position a few years prior to me.
Question #3: What is the mix of your work between service and scholarship? How do the various sides of your work inform each other?
A: Providing you with a proportionate breakdown of my work between service and scholarship is difficult because every project I lead or have a collaborative role in is based in evidence and scholarship. It is a rare day when I am not leveraging prior scholarship to inform the design of a workshop or assessment instrument.
Similarly, hardly a week goes by when I am not interpreting data for a college or stakeholder – in an applied sense, everything I do in service of this role is scholarship in one way or another.
In terms of external productivity and advancing the scholarship of teaching and learning, those opportunities are very much present and often result when we locate innovations in assessment or praxis.
Question #4: What are the big challenges that you see in advancing postsecondary learning? What should our institutions be doing better, and how does your work contribute to those goals?
A: First let me say, and drawing from How College Affects Students, that postsecondary learning is in a strong position. We know that the outcomes from college – particularly those connected to liberal education, such as critical thinking and problem solving – are effectively cultivated by faculty.
Where we continue to advance and find room for growth is in enhancing pedagogy, institutional climate, and support programs for underserved students.
In my work at Brown, advancement of this knowledge is a priority, and is woven throughout my portfolio.
When I begin an assessment project, it is usually with critical questions about data that we already have in our possession, and data that we aspire to collect. For example, how can we disaggregate findings in ways that do not center overrepresented populations as the “norm” for outcome achievement? Relatedly, how are we evaluating learning outcomes in ways that are culturally relevant to students and their disciplines?
Being this specific enables us to collect, interpret, and present data that focuses not on deficits, but on differences in how teaching happens and how learning is applied. With that nuanced understanding and focus, faculty and administrators can more efficiently transfer practices between related fields of study to enhance learning.
As a microcosm of society, I think higher education would benefit from the cultivation of a culture of assessment where data’s use for accountability was sublimated in favor of its potential for identifying ways to improve learning.
How are we leveraging data about teaching and learning to identify emergent and innovative pedagogical approaches that enhance the knowledge and skills of a diverse student body?
How can we collect rich data about the campus experiences that support student learning?
These questions center the notion that assessment is best used to identify innovative and impactful practices that can potentially be scaled to reach and benefit more students.
This perspective is essential to my role and part of the reward of my work (aside from a social scientist’s love of data): celebrating my colleagues’ achievements in the support of student learning.
Question #5: Why get a PhD and then decide to pursue an alt-ac (alternative academic) career?
A: Part of my answer to this question draws from my path to this role at Brown: it was a fit given my background and interests.
To dig a bit deeper, I will say that research and assessment of education are most impactful when they are applied toward the enhancement of student learning experiences and goals. I subsequently found the opportunity for direct translation of research to practice through assessment work particularly enticing.
Entering a newly created assessment position in a space where all of my stakeholders are passionate about the improvement of undergraduate learning is a unique opportunity to engage in that translation using my academic background and the skills that are derived from a research degree.
What would you like to ask Marc?