Assessing Assessment

A Defense of a Collaborative Approach to Assessment

If we as faculty members truly want to own the assessment of student performance and understanding, then we should work together toward meaningful solutions and processes, writes Will Miller.

July 19, 2018
 
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I vividly remember the day I shared with colleagues that I was leaving my faculty position to join our institution’s administration. Congratulatory comments quickly turned to looks of shock -- better described as betrayal -- when they realized I would oversee accreditation, assessment and institutional research.

Suddenly, my decision was met with terms such as “sellout,” “dark side” and “bureaucrat.” And later still, when I told the same colleagues I’d accepted a position with an ed-tech company, the shock was even greater. Every time I read commentary pieces, such as Alex Small's recent Inside Higher Ed article -- or those from Molly Worthen and Erik Gilbert earlier this year -- I’m reminded that, to some degree, anti-assessment culture permeates every institution of higher education. But it shouldn’t have to.

Learning outcomes assessment does not need to be a “bureaucratic behemoth” or contribute to a “ballooning assessment industry,” to cite Worthen. If we as faculty members truly want to own the assessment of student performance and understanding, then we should come to the table and work toward meaningful solutions and processes. In an era of heightened data expectations, in which internal and external forces continue to demand more from institutions, people expect to see results, whether we agree with these expectations or not. Faculty members want to know how programs prepare students to help prioritize internal funding; lawmakers want to know outputs of public money; and students and parents want to know how particular institutions or degrees can lead to success postcompletion.

Ironically, faculty expect tangible results from their peers when reviewing research, but some seem opposed to the same standards being applied to their classrooms. Thinking about higher education from an outsider’s perspective paints a fairly simple picture: students take courses because they expect to learn something. Faculty members are charged with determining what students should learn as part of curricular design, and it’s reasonable that they should determine whether or not students learn what is intended.

So, why the resistance? Why are many faculty members able -- and most important, willing -- to meaningfully show what students do and learn in the classroom, while others prefer to act like their impact on student learning could never be measured?

To be clear, assessment shouldn’t be about writing yet another report or checking an end-of-semester requirement box. It needs to be collaborative and carefully rooted in student learning. Assessment data, when collected and used in a meaningful way, can positively impact a faculty member’s own pedagogy, their academic program and student success. In a true culture of assessment, faculty members hold each other accountable for the benefit of students.

Rather than being another required activity, departments should integrate assessment into the triad of teaching, research and service. When a faculty member uses assessment results to improve as an instructor, they should receive credit for teaching. The scholarship of teaching and learning should be recognized as a worthwhile disciplinary contribution. And professors who lead assessment efforts and contribute in significant ways should be rewarded with service credits. But if assessment is going to be treated as a pariah, we shouldn’t expect faculty attitudes to change.

It’s easy to place the brunt of negative attitudes toward assessment on regional accreditors. And it’s even easier to understand why faculty members do so when campus administrators -- at times, myself included -- find it easier to pass blame on to accreditors rather than take time to explain the actual value of assessment efforts. But accreditation isn’t going anywhere, and assessment isn’t a passing fad.

Our charge then is to actively try to improve attitudes toward assessment. How do we make accreditation reports an opportunity to demonstrate meaningful ways we’ve used data to improve, as opposed to self-selecting cases to convince our peers that we upheld the spirit of an accreditation standard? It starts with developing a healthy assessment culture on campus, which requires both faculty members and administrators coming together to ensure people truly benefit from the data they are asked to collect and provide.

I doubt we could find a faculty member on any campus who would claim they entered higher education because of their love of assessment. That’s certainly not why I entered the field. But I struggle to see why my choice to believe in assessment is a negative attribute or means I am simply a report-filing bureaucrat. Why would I not want to demonstrate what my students (past, present and future) learn, why it matters and how it fits into an intentionally designed program progression? Perhaps most important, why would I not expect to demonstrate my effectiveness at the main reason most faculty members are employed: To help students learn about an area in which I am a content expert?

While it’s fun to write narratives that attack the problems with assessment, it’d be far more helpful if faculty members who have issues with how assessment takes place on their campus would step up and work to improve the culture by participating in relevant departmental or campuswide committees. For as much time as I spent writing reports -- reports that truly helped the faculty members who took time to engage with them -- my most productive career moments have been spent working closely with faculty to assure they understand what we “assessophiles” are trying to do and the real reasons why we try to do it.

Bio

Will Miller is assistant vice president of campus adoption at Campus Labs. Previously, he served as executive director of institutional analytics, effectiveness and planning at Flagler College, where he also taught political science and public administration.

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