On Assessing Student Learning, Faculty Are Not the Enemy

Instead of criticizing professors as unhelpful recalcitrants, administrators should admit that assessment shapes what is taught and include the faculty as partners in creating the right kind of assessment, Jeffrey Alan Johnson argues.

November 7, 2014

“Why do we have such trouble telling faculty what they are going to do?” said the self-identified administrator, hastening to add that he “still thinks of himself as part of the faculty.”

“They are our employees, after all. They should be doing what we tell them to do.”

Across a vast number of models for assessment, strategic planning, and student services on display at last month’s IUPUI Assessment Institute, it was disturbingly clear that assessment professionals have identified “The Faculty” (beyond the lip service to #notallfaculty, always as a collective body) as the chief obstacle to successful implementation of campuswide assessment of student learning. Faculty are recalcitrant. They are resistant to change for the sake of being resistant to change. They don’t care about student learning, only about protecting their jobs. They don’t understand the importance of assessment. They need to be guided toward the Gospel with incentives and, if those fail, consequences.

Certainly, one can find faculty members of whom these are true; every organization has those people who do just enough to keep from getting fired. But let me, at risk of offending the choir to whom keynote speaker Ralph Wolff preached, suggest that the faculty-as-enemy trope may well be a problem of the assessment field’s own making. There is a blindness to the organizational and substantive implications of assessment, hidden behind the belief that assessment is nothing more than collecting, analyzing, and acting rationally on information about student learning and faculty effectiveness.

Assessment is not neutral. In thinking of assessment as an effort to determine whether students are learning and faculty are being effective, it is imperative that we unpack the implicit subject doing the determining. That should make clear that assessment is first and foremost a management rather than a pedagogical practice. Assessment not reported to the administration meets the requirements of neither campus assessment processes nor accreditation standards, and is thus indistinguishable from non-assessment. As a fundamental principle of governance in higher education, assessment is designed to promote what social scientist James Scott has called “legibility”: the ability of outsiders to understand and compare conditions across very different areas in order to facilitate those outsiders’ capacity to manage.

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, for example, requires schools to practice “ongoing systematic collection and analysis of meaningful, assessable, and verifiable data” to demonstrate mission fulfillment. That is not simply demanding that schools make informed judgments. Data must be assessable and verifiable so that evaluators can examine the extent to which programs revise their practices using the assessment data. They can’t do that unless the data make sense to them. Administrators make the same demand on their departments through campus assessment processes. In the process a hierarchical, instrumentally rational, and externally oriented management model replaces one that has traditionally been decentralized, value rational, and peer-driven.

That’s a big shift in power. There are good (and bad) arguments to be made in favor of (and opposed to) it, and ways of managing assessment that shift that power more or less than others. Assessment professionals are naïve, however, to think that those shifts don’t happen, and fools to think that the people on the losing end of them will not notice or simply give in without objection.

At the same time, assessment also imposes substantive demands on programs through its demand that they “close the loop” and adapt their curriculums to those legible results regardless of how meaningful those results are to the programs themselves. An externally valid standard might demand significant changes to the curriculum that move the program away from its vision.

In my former department we used the ETS Major Field Test as such a standard. But while the MFT tests knowledge of political science as a whole, in political science competence is specific to subfields. Even at the undergraduate level students specialize sufficiently to be, for example, fully conversant in international relations and ignorant of political thought. The overall MFT score does not distinguish between competent specialization and broad mediocrity. One solution was to expect that students would demonstrate excellence in at least one subfield of the discipline. The curriculum would then have to require that students took nearly every course we offered in a subfield, and staffing realities in our program would inevitably make that field American politics.

Because the MFT was legible to a retired Air Force officer (the institutional effectiveness director), an English professor (the dean), a chemist (the provost), and a political appointee with no previous experience in higher education (the president), it stayed in place as a benchmark of progress, but offered little to guide program management. The main tool we settled on was an assessment of the research paper produced in a required junior-level research methods course (that nearly all students put off to their final semester). That assessment gave a common basis for evaluation (knowledge of quantitative research methods) and allowed faculty to evaluate substantive knowledge in a very narrow range of content through the literature review. But it also shifted emphasis toward quantitative work in the discipline, and further marginalized political thought altogether since that subfield isn’t based on empirical methods. We considered adding a political thought assignment, but that would have required students to prioritize that over the empirical fields (no other substantive field having a required assignment) rather than putting it on equal footing.

Evaluating a program with “meaningful, assessable, and verifiable data” can’t be done without changing the program. To “close the loop” based on MFT results required a substantive change in how we saw our mission: from producing well-rounded students to specialists in American politics. To do so with the methods paper required changes in course syllabuses and advising to bring more emphasis on empirical fields, more quantitative rather than qualitative work within those fields, more emphasis on methods supporting conclusions rather than the substance of the conclusions, and less coursework in political thought. We had a choice between these options. But we could not choose an option that would not require change in response to the standard, not just the results.

This is the reality facing those, like the administrator I quoted at the beginning of this essay, who believe that they can tell faculty what to do with assessment without telling them what to do with the curriculum. If assessment requires that a program make changes based on the results of its assessment processes, then the selection of processes defines a domain of curricular changes that can result. Some of these will be unavoidable: a multiple-choice test will require faculty to favor knowledge transmission over synthetic thinking. Others will be completely proscribed: if employment in the subfield of specialization is an assessment measure, the curriculum in political thought will never be reinforced, because people don’t work in political thought. But no process can be neutral among all possible curriculums.

Again, that may or may not be a bad thing. Sometimes a curriculum just doesn’t work, and assessment can be a way to identify it and replace it with something that does. But the substantive influence of assessment is most certainly a thing one way or the other, and that thing means that assessment professionals can’t say that assessment doesn’t change what faculty teach and how they teach it. When they tell faculty members that, they appear at best clueless and at worst disingenuous. With most faculty members having oversensitive BS detectors to begin with, especially when dealing with administrators, piling higher and deeper doesn’t exactly win friends and influence people.

The blindness that comes from belief in organizationally and curricularly neutral assessment is, I think, at the heart of the condescending attitudes toward faculty at the Assessment Institute. In the day two plenary session, one audience member asked, essentially, “What do we do about them?” as if there were no faculty members in the room. The faculty member next to me was quick to tune out as the panel took up the discussion with the usual platitudes about buy-in and caring about learning.

Throughout the conference there was plenty of discussion of why faculty members don’t “get it.” Of how to get them to buy into assessment on the institutional effectiveness office’s terms. Of providing effective incentives — carrots, yes, but plenty of sticks — to get them to cooperate. Of how to explain the importance of accreditation to them, as if they are unaware of even the basics. And of faculty paranoia that assessment was a means for the administration to come for their jobs.

What there wasn’t: discussion of what the faculty’s concerns with assessment actually are. Of how assessment processes do in fact influence what happens in classrooms. Of how assessment feeds program review, thus influencing administrative decisions about program closure and the allocation of tenure lines (especially of the conversion of tenure lines to adjunct positions when vacancies occur). Of the possibility that assessment might have unintended consequences that hinder student learning. These are very real concerns for faculty members, and should be for assessment professionals as well.

Nor was there discussion of what assessment professionals can do to work with faculty in a relationship that doesn’t subordinate faculty. Of how assessment professionals can build genuinely collaborative rather than merely cooptive relationships with faculty members. Of, more than anything, the virtues of listening before telling. When it comes to these things, it is the assessment field that doesn’t “get it.”

Let me assure you, as a former faculty member who talks about these issues with current ones: faculty members do care about whether students learn. In fact, many lose sleep over it. Faculty members informally assess their teaching techniques every time they leave a classroom and adjust what they do accordingly. In fact, that usually happens before they walk back into that classroom, not at the end of a two-year assessment cycle. Faculty members most certainly feel disrespected by suggestions they only care for themselves. In fact, it is downright offensive to suggest that they are selfish when in order to make learning happen they frequently make less than their graduates do and live in the places their graduates talk of escaping.

Assessment professionals need to approach faculty members as equal partners rather than as counterrevolutionaries in need of reeducation. That’s common courtesy, to be sure. But it is also essential if assessment is to actually improve student learning.

You do care about student learning, don’t you?


Jeffrey Alan Johnson is assistant director of institutional effectiveness and planning at Utah Valley University.


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