Give Assessment a Fighting Chance

November 04, 2013

Assessments of student achievement have become a divisive force on many campuses, in part because of a history of poor marketing and counterproductive attempts at adoption. But why, for many faculty members, has assessment become so controversial? After all, most professors are passionate about teaching—and don't teaching and learning make an inextricable pair? While serving on assessment committees at three different colleges over the last decade, I have seen some reasons why attempts to rally the faculty to the cause of learning-outcomes assessment are often met with resistance.

First and foremost, assessment efforts are all too often conducted under the gun of an accreditation deadline. In 2009, George Kuh and Stanley Ikenberry, co-principal investigators for the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment, reported that the "most common use for student learning outcomes data was preparing for accreditation ... and to a lesser degree for revising undergraduate learning goals." Subsequent research conducted by the institute reiterated those findings and suggested that meaningful assessment depends on institutions "taking the time to discuss and reflect on assessment practices ... to build a comprehensive, collective approach." That is unlikely to be achieved under the pressure of a looming accreditation deadline.

In 2010, the Chronicle writer David Glenn reported another reason why assessment often gets off to a rocky start: "Many of the most visible and ambitious learning-assessment projects out there seem to strangely ignore the scholarly disciplines' own internal efforts to improve teaching and learning." Conversations taking place within departments are informed by student-learning objectives and a wealth of data specific to those disciplines, often provided by scholarly societies. When those who advocate a one-size-fits-all assessment plan fail to acknowledge existing efforts within the disciplines, they risk alienating potential allies.

Further risk of alienating professors occurs when assessment is introduced as some newfangled system under which they will be held accountable. Faculty members have been doing assessment all along, at both the classroom and departmental level. (Find me a faculty member who has never tweaked a syllabus or a rubric based on student feedback, or who has never contributed to a program review!) Even if previous efforts do not dovetail with a new campuswide vision for measuring student achievement, those existing bits and pieces of the puzzle may constitute a worthwhile start. The assessment challenge will seem far more surmountable when the conversation begins with taking stock of what your institution is already doing.

Another reason that faculty buy-in for assessment fizzles is that the discussion often disregards the very thing that the assessment cycle has been designed to achieve: refined teaching methods. By instead inviting faculty members to start the conversation by sharing best teaching practices and then backtracking to the evidence and observations that resulted in those teaching methods, campus leaders can place assessment in a familiar and inspiring context.

Further eroding support for assessment is the concern that, to satisfy accreditors, professors will be forced to dumb down their course assignments to what is easiest to measure. In most cases, the easiest data to crunch come from a multiple-choice approach. But especially considering the recent shift toward problem-based, integrative learning, students are being asked to compare, analyze, and synthesize aspects of their educational experience in ways that can be evaluated far more effectively on a qualitative spectrum. However, qualitative feedback is cumbersome to process, and far more difficult to convey to accreditors in the concise, data-driven format that they often emphasize.

Another challenge is figuring out how best to include adjunct faculty members, who make up a significant portion of the teaching staff at many colleges and universities. With occasional exception, adjuncts are paid to do one thing: teach. How then, does an institution advance assessment when something like half of all faculty are not compensated for being a part of the conversation?

Since most budgets are strained to the breaking point, one minimal and well-placed investment that some colleges are already exploring is offering stipends to at least a handful of adjuncts to serve on a campus governance committee. One of those adjuncts could be designated as an assessment liaison so that other adjuncts could hear about assessment from someone who shares their concerns and understands their perspective. That might help bring all faculty members into the conversation.

Workload is another valid faculty concern. How can professors who are already spread so thin accomplish the mountain of work involved in assessment? If they are unable to participate, the likely alternative is a top-down (or for those who would give up control to consultants, an outside-in) approach.

The most viable solution, although few campuses are able to offer it, is to provide stipends and course releases to encourage those who are willing to take on the responsibility of leading the charge to do so over the long haul. If the responsibility is given to an ad hoc committee or task force instead, successive iterations of those committees will lose valuable headway as they struggle during the first few months of their appointments to figure out where the assessment torch has been and how to keep it lit, let alone how to carry it forward.

At best, assessment is a process of discovery, a way to enhance teaching and learning, and an opportunity to highlight successful strategies that are already in place at our institutions. To give assessment the makeover it deserves, faculty members must engage in the process with a genuine sense of curiosity. We must ask ourselves what we want to know about student achievement and about how well our measurements of that achievement are working. Furthermore, we must share with our colleagues the ways in which our own teaching practices and philosophies have evolved based on the evidence we have gathered. In that context, assessment truly becomes an opportunity for learning—and for teaching.

Barret Havens is an assistant professor who teaches library and information science at Woodbury University.