Nashville -- The six prospective students came into the assessment center cold, with no clue what to expect.
They sat around a rectangular table. Three behavioral assessors sat at another table across the room. Behind them was a one-way mirror, which blocked the students’ view into a large observation area.
Charla Long, dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Professional Studies, sat on the other side of the mirror.
“They have no idea what they’re going to do today,” Long says, “just like you’re at a first day of work.”
The small private university has created a competency-based framework for 22 majors in the college of Professional Studies (see accompanying article). The programs are “hybrids,” meaning they feature both competency-based credits and conventional courses.
Students’ first taste of competencies at Lipscomb is the assessment center. That's where they can spend $1,500 to get a baseline read of their competencies in 15 areas (see box).
The split for the day-long process is always six students to three assessors.
So far 24 faculty members at the university have been trained as certified assessors. The training takes 16 hours. They receive a certification as behavioral assessors after completing it.
All but a few of Lipscomb’s 24 assessors hold doctoral degrees. Long says the three in the room this day are good examples of the mix of experience and credentials the group brings to the table.
Brad Gray holds a Ph.D. and teaches in Lipscomb’s College of Business. He is also a consultant to small businesses and nonprofits. Susan C. Galbreath is Lipscomb’s associate provost and a professor of accounting. Finally, Suzanne Sager holds an MBA and hails from business, having worked for Proctor and Gamble.
Problem-solving and decision-making
Organizing and planning
Drive and energy
Paying professional assessors is an expensive piece of the labor-intensive work of running the center. But Lipscomb does all right, Long says, thanks to the student fees. “We’re still making money,” she said.
The six students participating today range in age from 24 to 51 years old. Two are military veterans. Some are seeking to change careers. And all of them will attempt to transfer in credits from other institutions they’ve attended.
The stakes are high during their eight hours in the assessment center. Each student can earn up to 30 credits for their performance during eight hours in the center. That works out to a savings of about $15,000 in tuition and fees.
After a brief introductory statement by a university employee, the day begins at 8:15 a.m. with an exercise designed to simulate a manager at a fictional company devising policies. The students work both individually and in the full group as they tackle the task.
Assessors are watching, closely. Each one pays particular attention to randomly assigned two students. That means taking notes on what they say, how they interact with others and their nonverbal cues. For example, the assessors note how often a student touches her glasses or when she gets a drink of water.
There is a chalkboard in the room. Long says it can be telling to see which student is first to grab a marker and head for the board.
“This is where the fun begins,” she says.
Two of the participants have been mouse-like for much of the morning. They rarely contribute, and back down quietly when cut off by other students.
“If they don’t kick it up a notch,” Long says, “they’re not going to walk away with credits.”
Gray has been assigned to watch one of the two, a 30-year-old male student who has transferred in with 50 credits. Later he says the student performed better than an untrained observer might think.
“He was quiet, for the most part,” says Gray. “But when he was able to participate, it changed the conversation.”
One reason the student sometimes struggled to get a word in was because of two pushier students, who took charge throughout much of the day.
One of those two, a 47-year-old female and military veteran, started out strong. But she hit a major snag on a solo activity designed to re-create the inbox of a busy company employee.
The student missed a schedule that showed she (or the fictional employee she was portraying) would be out of the office the following week. She pushed a bunch of tasks off to that week, essentially tanking a large chunk of the exercise.
The assessors tried to isolate her mistake as much as possible. But the error was a new one at the center. So they called the company that designed the exercise to figure out how much of a hit the student should take.
A debrief at 4:30 p.m. marks the end of the day. The students leave looking drained and a bit punchy. Long says many feel discouraged after the process.
The three assessors have more work ahead of them, however. They spend several hours that night poring over their notes to assign scores for students on a detailed competency and exercise matrix.
The next morning the three assessors gather again to compare notes. They work through the scoring by reaching consensus. If assessors differ on a value to assign to a student, they discuss it according to an established protocol. While some variation emerges during the several-hour process, the assessors are mostly on the same page.
Also returning to the College of Professional Studies that morning are the six students. They each meet with an assessor to receive a report on their performance. And, mostly importantly, to learn how many college credits they will receive.
The youngest of the students, a 24-year-old office manager at a real estate company, sits down in Long’s office for her meeting with Galbreath, who was her primary assessor.
Galbreath gives her good marks for her drive, organizing and planning skills, and her influence with the group. However, the student also gets dinged for being overly confrontational at times. Galbreath delivers that tougher feedback directly, but with a gentle tone and lots of specific observations to back up her point.
The student fully accepts the criticism.
“The whole activity was really fun,” she says, but adding that “I did feel I was getting aggressive.”
Galbreath hands over sheets for each competency the student earned. The final tally is 30 credits received, which is the maximum Lipscomb can award students for their participation in the center. However, the female student is deemed not competent enough in two of the 15 areas -- she falls below the minimum of level-two rating on a 0-4 point scale -- so she will have to bring those scores up to receive all her credits.
The student, who enrolled last fall, also transferred in 34 credits from a local community college. That means she’s halfway through her bachelor’s of science in integrated studies. She plans to use her degree to advance in real estate.
“I found my calling,” she says. “I’m really impressed that I got so many credits.”