Does Assessment Make Colleges Better? Let Me Count the Ways

August 19, 2015

Erik Gilbert’s recent commentary in The Chronicle, "Does Assessment Make Colleges Better? Who Knows?" raises an important question about the value of assessment. As one who has worked in education for 15 years and dutifully assessed learning in his classes, Gilbert now wonders if that measurement has been a worthwhile use of time. He’s not certain that the tweaks he’s made (and they’ve been mostly tweaks) have been meaningful enough to merit the time all that assessing has required.

Gilbert’s question itself contains an argument for the value of assessment. And he may have missed that value because it occurred where he wasn’t expecting to find it.

In the first decade of my work in higher education (roughly the 1990s), I encountered very few faculty members who even thought about learning outcomes. Many cared deeply about students, but college was about what professors professed rather than about what students learned. After 2000, when we began hearing the words "learning outcomes" on campuses, teachers often countered that what students learned in their classes and through their degree programs was ineffable, unnamable; to try to name it was to diminish it. Moreover, the responsibility for learning it was on the student.

In fact, there was no reason for teachers to name what students learned in those pre-assessment days. What mattered was what professors taught, typically defined as what was covered in their course syllabi. The number of books in the library epitomized the kind of data that accreditors were expected to find meaningful. Higher education was about inputs, and being a "good" institution meant having the right number of classrooms, the right square footage of space for the (bolted down) desks and the students who sat in them, the right faculty-student ratio, and, and the right student population, understood to mean those who had the best SAT/ACT scores and greatest likelihood of achieving postcollege success.

Higher education has moved away from that undesirable situation, and I credit assessment for that. The effort to develop assessment plans required us to struggle with naming what we wanted students to gain from the programs of study they completed, and the process of doing so proved surprisingly useful. We had to get beyond that first inclination to say, "We can’t name it." It turned out to be important to get that naming right.

If we named in reductive terms, we wrestled with that language every time we tried to assess and then analyze the results. If we named better, we might have findings to look at that were interesting and worth examining. We had to think about the difference between wanting students to "know" and wanting students to "do" — and we came to recognize that, in an era of Wikipedia and smartphones, "knowing" doesn’t seem all that crucial compared with doing.

Another surprise: There are lots of kinds of doing. Our graduates might be expected to apply what they know in designing a simple bridge, to analyze what makes a bridge fail, to evaluate a bridge design and determine its flaws and limits. Which outcome, really, names what new graduates should be ready to do? Even faculty members in traditional arts-and-sciences programs like history learned that the application of knowledge, and not just knowledge itself, matters.

They began to talk about the balance between dates and battles students need to "know" for historical context, and the kinds of analysis a student with a history degree may be expected to do. What intellectual tasks should a senior history major be able to complete by the time she graduates? Should she be able to define the historical context for a given event, to analyze the event from competing perspectives within that context, to evaluate how that event compares with another in an entirely different context, or to imagine how that event would play out if many of the same forces occurred in a contemporary context?

We had to ask ourselves, "If students achieve the right kind of learning in my class or our degree program, what would it look like and where would we see it?" Strategies for getting students to create demonstrations of learning had to be imagined and developed. We had to wonder where we might build opportunities to practice that kind of learning. We had to ask if the essay tests, papers, problem sets, and exams that were traditional in many fields were appropriate measures to demonstrate "doing." We had to talk to students about why multiple-choice tests were OK in some settings and for some purposes but were often insufficient for either practicing or demonstrating specific kinds of learning that mattered.

We had to become more purposeful about what happens in our programs of study and our classes. Talking about assessment provoked discussions about the value of backward design: Rather than plan a class by choosing a text and then dividing the semester into segments corresponding with chapters, we recognized that learning might be better achieved if we named what students should get from a class, figured out how we’d like to see them demonstrate that learning, and structured the semester to prepare students for doing that demonstration. We had to think about what students would do rather than what we’d say.

These are huge improvements in teaching and learning practices in higher education. While I can’t say that they are ubiquitous, many faculty members now take this kind of thinking about their teaching for granted. Of course we name intended learning outcomes. Of course we think about what those outcomes should be before we write the syllabus.

There is one additional improvement that needs to be acknowledged. Thinking about the work we do in these ways requires talking to one another about it. In some departments, the result is that we construct a program curriculum so that learning in sophomore classes feeds into the junior-year classes those students take. We discover that the reason seniors can’t write a report or make an argument in a presentation is because none of our lower-level courses provided practice in that.

Who knew? But now that we know, we can talk about how to fix those problems. We can engage in discussion about curriculum, sequencing, and learning outcomes. Our shared interest takes on an urgency beyond the "What’s wrong with students today?" discussions that are a default topic of mutual interest.

So is assessment "effective"? Yes. I’ve heard of many cases in which professors really do find something about their program or their course that they can fix once it’s been identified. Those fixes can be substantial; faculty members at my institution changed general education, and a major piece of the motivation for that work was evidence from assessments. (Is the new program better? That’s a question we’re still answering. We do know it’s better in some ways — and we know that because of assessment.)

Regardless of the scale of a fix, assessment is effective for promoting greater thoughtfulness and purpose in teaching — and for focusing our attention on learning. That matters. On that basis alone, assessment works.

Joan Hawthorne is director of assessment and regional accreditation at the University of North Dakota.