Academic administration

Asheville expands program to encourage on-time graduation

UNC Asheville is building a program offering free summer tuition after sophomore and junior years to those who need an extra course or two to finish on time.

Assessment isn't about bureaucracy but about teaching and learning (opinion)

The text came in when my cell signal returned, just as our car crossed over the eastern slope of the Allegheny Mountains. My mother’s message read simply: “On the front page of the opinion section … below the fold and half of page 6. Mailing to you Monday.” My husband, daughter and I were on our way home from a weekend in the mountains of West Virginia. My mother, 11 hours north of us in Boston, was enjoying her Sunday routine, which always involved the print version of The New York Times. I had told her to keep an eye out for an opinion piece that was posted electronically at the start of the weekend, one that had those of us in higher education buzzing about it since it hit.

This was a first for me: my vocation was being called on the carpet in the Times by a fellow academic. My chosen profession, higher education assessment, was reduced to pithy descriptions like “bureaucratic behemoth” and “supposedly data-driven” and “expensive administrative bloat.” I had to laugh at the sudden fame bestowed upon my rather inside-baseball profession. In a family full of cops and lawyers, I often struggled to say, precisely and concisely, what I did for a living. In contrast, my brother gets to tell people that he is the real-life inspiration for Agent Callen on NCIS: Los Angeles. My story? Much less exciting.

For years my shorthand answer to the “And what do you do for a living?” question was that I helped colleges and universities make sure that they fulfill the promise of their brochures to students and parents. According to Molly Worthen, in her piece entitled “The Misguided Drive to Measure ‘Learning Outcomes,’” I was at best a well-intentioned if unwitting collaborator with for-profit technology companies, reactionary academic leadership and demanding employers, against which she -- an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill -- and others like her stood ready to defend the life of the mind. While my colleagues on the assessment professionals’ email list dissected her argument line by line, my heart went out to the individuals who work in assessment at Chapel Hill. Though I do not know them personally, it is not a large stretch of the imagination to think that the coming workweek would be a difficult one.

Worthen’s op-ed covered an ambitious amount of territory under the guise of addressing measuring student learning: perceived cracks in the regional accreditation system, states’ divestment in public education, larger societal ills thwarting the ability of institutions of higher learning to educate, and even former education secretary Margaret Spellings herself, providing perhaps unintended proof of the beautiful, important significance and continuing power of academic freedom, considering Spellings’s current position -- president of the University of North Carolina system, and therefore Worthen’s boss. I will leave it to others in a better position than me to address what I see as Worthen’s false dichotomy between the life of the mind and the dignity of work, the deficit-model positioning of socioeconomic status in her argument, and issues of institutional inequity, and focus exclusively on her conceptions of assessing student learning.

As someone who spent the better part of the last 15 years working on campuses in assessment and evaluation, I know firsthand the joys and challenges inherent to that role. I fully recognize that there are places where “assessment” remains a dirty word and faculty expertise is not included as part of the process.

That said, such examples should not define assessment writ large. In my current job as senior director for research and assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities, I have the unique privilege of working with faculty and assessment professionals (individuals who, frankly, are often one and the same) across the spectrum of institutions, from the flagship state institutions and elite private colleges and universities that dominate any number of prestige rankings to the community colleges, four-year regional comprehensives and less-than-elite regional private institutions, a.k.a. the rest of higher education, which happen to be the institutions that actually educate the majority of today’s students.

And what do I work with them to do? Precisely the opposite of the kind of assessment described by Worthen. Well before I joined the organization, at a time when simplistic quantification of learning was the coin of the realm, AAC&U championed the role of faculty expertise in teaching, learning and assessment and created an alternative approach to standardized tests, the VALUE (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education) rubrics. For the uninitiated, rubrics are simply an explicit articulation of (1) faculty expectations of students vis-à-vis their learning, as well as (2) descriptions of what student work looks like at progressively higher levels of performance.

And how did AAC&U create the VALUE rubrics? By engaging interdisciplinary teams of faculty members from across the country to author the rubrics, and then making them available to everyone, for free, via a simple Word or PDF download from our website.

The rubrics themselves are now almost a decade old and have proven to be an essential resource locally to campuses as well as the foundation of national-level experiments in assessing student learning. Philosophically, pedagogically and methodologically, VALUE is designed to afford faculty the opportunity to flex their creative muscles and capture evidence that the curriculum they own and the courses they teach do indeed promote students’ development of the very learning outcomes that are essential to a liberal, and liberating, education.

Far from a reductionist tool, research has demonstrated that the VALUE rubrics empower faculty members to help translate the learning that takes place when a student completes an assignment they crafted, one that aligns with and promotes disciplinary knowledge, and -- at its best -- gives students not just the requisite skills for the single assignment, but also advances the ultimate purpose of college teaching: long-term retention of knowledge, skills and abilities and the ability to transfer those skills to a completely new or novel situation. Translation: no “one-off,” single exam question should ever “count” as a proxy for student learning along complex constructs like critical thinking. The educational psychologist in me rails against such simplistic conceptions of learning, and our approaches to assessment must do so as well.

But the elephant in the room is this: doing so requires that faculty be all in when it comes to undergraduate teaching. Threaded throughout Worthen’s piece is a vision of students coming to our campuses (if not her own) laden with baggage, whose deficits, when coupled with unreasonable demands from callous lawmakers or corrupt capitalists, doom them to failure. Intentional or not, Worthen’s opposition to assessing student learning reads as but a strawman for a much more harmful argument: protecting the life of the mind by writing off entire segments of our society from the intellectual and, yes, economically transformative power of higher education.

It is time faculty fully adopt the mantle of educator and demand of themselves the same rigorous standards for ascertaining student learning as they do to establishing the credibility of their own disciplinary research. And yet …

Worthen’s perceptions do not come out of a vacuum. Whether the result of her own lived experience or the powerful anecdote shared by her colleague at Arkansas State University, those of us who represent the field of assessment must not dismiss her concerns out of hand. As someone representing a national organization, I am now in a position to say certain things to faculty and administrators that I would not necessarily have been empowered to say when working on a campus. Of late, that includes truth telling to members of my own tribe.

Last fall, I was invited to give the closing keynote for the 30th anniversary of the Virginia Assessment Group, the state’s association for assessment professionals, for which I twice served as president when I was still working at Virginia Tech. In my talk, I challenged my Virginia friends -- all of whom care deeply about student learning at the individual level and a high-quality educational experience at the institutional level -- to look in the mirror and have an honest conversation with the person staring back at them.

My thinking on this has evolved and sharpened over the past few months -- months that included attending at least one regional accreditation meeting as well as AAC&U’s annual meeting, aptly focused on whether or not higher education can recapture the elusive American dream. With all of this in mind, I say to my fellow travelers working to measure student learning:

  • If your definition of quality is methodologically reductionist, then assessment is not for you.
  • If your conception of learning does not encompass the inherent complexities of making meaning within and integrating across disciplines, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you see black and white when the world of the mind radiates color and nuance, assessment is not for you.
  • If your sole claim to fame is memorization of accreditation standards, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you cannot reflect on your own path as a learner, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you cannot stretch to be what your faculty, institutions and students need you to be, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you cannot speak truth to power, including your provost and president, then assessment is not for you.
  • If you cannot promote collaborative processes on your campus, have no tolerance for ambiguity or cannot listen and really hear the concerns of the likes of Worthen, then assessment is not for you.

It is incumbent upon us -- those of us with responsibility for measuring and then sharing what we know about student learning on our campuses -- to belie the easy stereotype of the bureaucratic bean counter, and to avail ourselves of every opportunity to center our work within the teaching enterprise, just as it is our responsibility to counter any and all strawman arguments about what it is that we value.

As we descended in elevation to our home in the Blue Ridge, despite the tone of Worthen’s piece, I found myself excited that the assessment narrative has evolved to its current state, and looking forward to continuing the work into the future.

Kate Drezek McConnell is senior director for research and assessment at the Association of American Colleges and Universities.

Editorial Tags: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Hampshire College centralizes academic assistance programs in the library

Centralizing a range of academic services has boosted their use at Hampshire College.

Skills disconnected from academic programs shouldn't matter to colleges (opinion)

Skills do not matter.

Let me say that again. On their own, skills do not matter.

This is worth saying in response to Thursday’s Inside Higher Ed story stating that the American Council on Education will “team up with the digital credential provider Credly to help people put a value on skills they have learned outside college courses.” The initiative, funded by the Lumina Foundation, is, in the words of ACE’s Ted Mitchell, “about creating a new language for the labor market” in which skills-based competencies are valued and credited.

It’s wonderful and important for employers to develop their employees’ skills, but colleges and universities need not take notice, because these efforts are irrelevant to collegiate education’s goals and purposes.

One way to think about why skills do not matter is by analogizing to other kinds of education. Imagine your employer provided you a manual dexterity class where you learned to move your fingers about effectively. Now imagine that you came to a guitar teacher and asked for credit. Certainly, guitar players need to have manual dexterity, but the guitar teacher would wonder why you deserved credit. Learning dexterity absent actually playing guitar is not particularly valuable. It certainly does not mean that one can play guitar, nor that one has understood guitar nor embraced the purpose of studying guitar. It’s a meaningless skill from the perspective of a guitar teacher.

The same can be said of a karate teacher. Imagine that your employer had taught you to kick but had never introduced you to the specifics of karate. Do you have a “karate competency” because karate also requires kicking? Of course not.

Instead, a good karate instructor will point out that kicking abstracted from the context of learning karate is not particularly relevant to the task at hand. It will not teach one how to kick within karate, nor embody the values and discipline that a karate instructor intends to develop in her or his students.

The same is true for college professors committed to ensuring that students graduate with a liberal education. Certainly, being successful in the arts and sciences requires high-level cognitive and academic skills. But those skills are meaningless unless they are learned within and devoted to the purposes of liberal education.

In short, offering college credit for disembodied skills is as much a mistake as a guitar instructor offering credit for manual dexterity.

How, then, should colleges and universities understand skills? For starters, they should always see them in relation to the specific ends of the programs that they offer. This is as true for vocational as for liberal education. The skills of a carpenter or a nurse or a car mechanic are not isolated but are interconnected and oriented to the end of wood construction, providing health care or repairing engines, just as a guitar teacher’s goal is to impart knowledge and techniques in relation to playing the guitar.

For four-year colleges and universities, on the other hand, the skills that matter should be related to their primary mission of offering every undergraduate a liberal education. At such institutions, academic skills should be developed in the context of, for example, reading and writing about literature or history or engaging in scientific inquiry.

A liberal education is not just any kind of education. Like carpentry, nursing or guitar playing, it has content. It seeks to cultivate specific virtues through specific practices. For example, the goal of a historian is not to teach abstract skills (such as parsing evidence or writing papers) but to help students engage in intellectual inquiry about the past. This means that skills are developed within the context of reading and writing history. The end is historical perspective, and the skills are means to that end. From the perspective of a historian, it matters little whether someone has good skills unless they also have learned to value history and to develop historical insight.

In addition, skills, from the perspective of four-year colleges and universities, are meaningless outside studying specific subject matter. If colleges and universities want students to care about and think with the arts and sciences, students need to spend their time studying the arts and sciences.

Indeed, scholars of teaching and learning have made clear that critical thinking skills cannot be abstracted from the material that one studies. As James Lang writes in his book Small Teaching: Everyday Lessons From the Science of Learning (2016), “Knowledge is foundational: we won’t have the structures in place to do deep thinking if we haven’t spent time mastering a body of knowledge related to that thinking.” That is because the ability to ask sophisticated questions and to evaluate potential answers is premised on what one already knows, not just on skills abstracted from context.

Thus, if the goal of four-year college education is liberal education, we need students to study subject matter in the humanities, social sciences and natural sciences. Students need to engage seriously with history and politics, or economics and physics, before they will be able to think critically about history or politics or economics or physics. This takes time. Assessing skills cannot, and certainly should not, be done outside the context of the subjects one ought to study in college.

This is not to deny that employers should invest more resources in developing their employees’ skills, nor to suggest that those skills don’t matter within the context of specific employment markets. There are many reasons to celebrate public and private efforts to develop Americans’ work-force skills, and doing so can benefit both employers and individuals.

It simply matters little to the kinds of things that one should earn college credit for. Employers’ goals are not to graduate liberally educated adults, but to generate human capital. Generating human capital may also be a byproduct of a good liberal education, but it is certainly not the goal of it.

In fact, a good liberal education asks students to put aside, even if just for a while, their pecuniary goals in order to experience the public and personal value of gaining insight into the world by studying the arts and sciences. This is the end, the purpose, the reason for a college education. Whatever other purposes students might bring to their education, and whatever valuable byproducts emerge as a result of their time in college, colleges and universities should remain true to their academic mission.

Johann N. Neem is a professor of history at Western Washington University. He is the author of Democracy’s Schools: The Rise of Public Education in America (2017). The ideas in this essay draw from "What Is College For?" in Colleges at the Crossroads: Taking Sides on Contested Issues (2018).

Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

Achieving the Dream colleges find graduates report higher well-being

A new survey shows graduates from Achieving the Dream colleges report higher percentages of financial and community well-being compared to other community college alumni.

Why an associate deanship is an academic position worth considering (opinion)

Often overlooked, it's an academic job worth considering, writes Patricia Ann Mabrouk.

Ad keywords: 
Editorial Tags: 
Show on Jobs site: 
Image Source: 
Is this diversity newsletter?: 
Is this Career Advice newsletter?: 

North Carolina community college's elimination of D's leads to transfer success

Transfer rates at North Carolina's Stanly Community College increased after the college made the simple grading change of no longer awarding D's.

British students don't know the terms with which the right-wing press criticizes them


Britain’s conservative press uses American rhetoric -- “snowflakes” and “trigger warnings” -- to describe British academe. But students there don’t even know the terms.

2-Day Intensive: International Transfer Credit Workshop

Sat, 07/07/2018 to Sun, 07/08/2018


1300 Nicollet Mall Hyatt Regency Minneapolis
Minneapolis , Minnesota 55403
United States

Colleges and states scramble to comply with instructor credential rules for dual-credit courses

A recent accreditation policy has many colleges -- particularly in rural areas -- struggling to find qualified instructors to teach popular dual-credit courses for high school students.


Subscribe to RSS - Academic administration
Back to Top