Encouraging Assessment From the Ground Up

Donna Engelmann suggests ways that colleges can help professors embrace the process as meaningful instead of viewing it as a bureaucratic chore.

September 28, 2007

In this space last month, I wrote about how assessment from the ground up means that accountability for colleges and universities ought to flow from the improvement of student learning and not the other way around. In the responses to that article, and in the work that my colleagues at Alverno College have done with other institutions over the last three decades, a compelling question arises: How can we encourage one another as faculty to engage in assessment that will work for our students and for us, and not just be a bureaucratic chore?

Under pressure from accreditors and others, just about every college and university has declared that it has some form of measuring learning. But we also know that assessment data are gathering dust in file cabinets around the country, and that learning outcomes have gone into syllabi and quietly died. But when this has not been the case, when faculty have embraced assessment as central to their teaching, what has made the difference? How and why have faculty tied learning activities and assessment to course outcomes so that students themselves see achieving the outcomes as essential to success in a course or program?

My Alverno colleagues have conducted workshops on the improvement of teaching and assessing at colleges and universities in every state in the union and around the globe. And we have hosted a summer teaching and assessment workshop at the college for over 30 years. Our goal has been to share how assessing students’ performance has improved learning, and has provided us with evidence to document progress in individual student learning and the effectiveness of the curriculum as a whole.

In our experience, there are at least five things that have been helpful in engaging faculty in teaching for and assessing learning outcomes:

1. Draw on the expertise of professors who are already -- even without a formal assessment protocol -- doing effective work in teaching, and in understanding what helps students learn. Colleges should create permanent spaces and places for faculty to brag about teaching jobs well done, and offer rewards for individual faculty and programs where effective learning is taking place. Many attempts to institute assessment have unfortunately proceeded from a deficit model – “teaching needs to get better around here, and we are going to bring in consultants and faculty developers to show you the error of your ways.” It may be true that faculty members who have learned to teach on the job – as is true of the vast majority of college and university teachers today – have developed some bad habits and ineffective approaches. But it is also true that there is great teaching going on in every institution. Share and reward what’s working, and recognize faculty expertise as teachers as well as scholars of the disciplines. An important part of this discourse is developing and sharing assessment processes that get at the kind of learning that faculty expect of students and provide insights into how to improve teaching. Encourage that professor who tried something with her students last year that failed to explain to her peers how she learned from that experience and what she is doing now to get better results. This sort of sharing among faculty will do more to advance assessment that improves student learning than providing canned rubrics and requiring end-of-term assessment paperwork.

2. Move toward reward structures that encourage and recognize this kind of faculty collaboration. Develop criteria for excellence in teaching and assessment of student learning, and make them central – not peripheral – to faculty hiring, tenure and promotion. Voices in higher education have been saying this since Ernest Boyer’s work on the scholarship of teaching, but a real change in attitudes about the importance of teaching in faculty life has yet to occur. Take seriously the need to nurture good teaching throughout a faculty member’s career, and institute supportive apprenticeships for new teachers, who still get little to no attention to their development as teachers in their graduate preparation. Legitimize the scholarship of teaching, by recognizing its value alongside disciplinary research, but also create an institutional culture that prizes scholarly teaching. I take the term “scholarly teaching” from my Alverno colleague Tim Riordan, who has written and spoken extensively about the systematic and deliberate and joyous pursuit of the improvement of student learning that should be a part of every faculty member’s professional life.

3. Create communities of practice around teaching and learning issues that faculty themselves see as critical to their work. It can be difficult to reach across institutional divides to have interdisciplinary conversations about teaching and learning, but one way to overcome barriers is to capitalize on informal gatherings to provide sites for discussion of issues faculty are raising in the context of their teaching. Try teaching breakfasts, brown bag lunches for effective assessment, coffees about how to work with brand new or challenging students. At Alverno, our Teachers of New Students has been meeting every Friday over lunch for over 25 years to discuss work with freshman and new transfer students. Institutions can nurture these efforts by upping the catering budget, providing the publicity, and recognizing their worth in official pronouncements by institutional leaders. It is surprising but true that discussion of teaching and assessing student learning can be just as intellectually stimulating as discussing disciplinary research, does more to create a community of shared interest among the faculty, and validates good teaching efforts.

4. Emphasize that collaboration to improve the teaching and assessing of student learning need not violate academic freedom or faculty autonomy. Professors have a shared responsibility for student learning, and that responsibility depends in part on where we teach. We have a duty to take into account the make-up of the student body, the mission of the institution, and in the best cases, what’s consistent with the shared pedagogical approach of the faculty. Faculty agreement to establish and assess student learning outcomes can provide a framework for curricular coherence, while avoiding a restrictive rigidity for either faculty or students. It is vital to preserve for professors the space to teach their disciplines in light of their own understandings and interpretations, but equally vital to uphold the promise of effective teaching and learning that is extended in the mission of every college. In our experience faculty can collectively coordinate assessment across the curriculum to make learning more accessible, meaningful and rigorous for students, without having to give up the ways of knowing and methods of inquiry appropriate to their disciplines.

5. In working with institutions everywhere, we have also learned that leadership on behalf of improving learning and assessment – both formal and informal – is critical. Administrators can sometimes get things started, but it is faculty members who keep assessment going and meaningful. Without the expertise in and advocacy for assessment of faculty members who have their colleagues’ respect, there is little hope that assessment practices will persist when the accreditors have gone away or the provost has left the room. Recognizing a faculty member’s emerging expertise in assessment by making responsibility for assessment part of his or her load is commendable. Adding responsibility for assessment to the load of a talented but already overburdened faculty member means the job just will not get done. Be realistic about the time it will take for individuals, departments, and corporate faculties to work together in new ways to take responsibility for improving student learning, establish goals and timelines for the process, and celebrate milestones along the way.

Instituting assessment from the ground up takes resources in time, talent, attention, publicity, and developing faculty expertise. Cultural change will be required, as will long term leadership and support. But from the perspective of those who have been engaged in assessing from the ground up, its rewards in terms of student learning and, ultimately, faculty satisfaction at a mission achieved, are well worth it.


Donna Engelmann is professor and chair of the philosophy department at Alverno College, and past president of the American Association of Philosophy Teachers.


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