Online Blogucation
2Nov/110

The Buzz on Assessment

I had the pleasure of attending the 2011 Assessment Institute in Indianapolis this week. The conference is the nation’s oldest and largest event focused exclusively on outcomes assessment in higher education. Administrators, Faculty and Student Affairs professionals convened this week to discuss techniques and approaches across outcomes assessment areas. This year, the event featured tracks on Capstone Experience, ePortfolios, and Faculty Development, among others.

I’d like to share with you a few of the recurring themes I heard and will take with me from the keynotes, workshops and best practice sessions. I will share specifically three themes and considerations. These few points may serve as a marker for some of the noteworthy issues and considerations in the higher education outcomes assessments landscape.

The first two themes are indeed linked in both process and practice, so I will identify both of them at this point. They are: 1) Faculty Engagement and 2) Using Results to Inform Improvement Processes. For those of us who have been doing outcomes assessment for any extended period of time, these themes may echo many of the questions and issues as well as the successes we have faced.

The engagement of faculty in the assessment process is certainly not a new issue in the practice of assessment. Notwithstanding, faculty engagement in the process of outcomes assessment is a reality many institutions are still desiring and even stretching to achieve. The corporate understanding among practitioners gathered at the event appears to reveal an arrival, or perhaps a standstill in some cases, at a place of resounding confirmation, one that points to faculty engagement in the assessment process as a critical component to successful assessment. In her 2010 paper entitled “Opening Doors to Faculty Involvement in Assessment”, Pat Hutchings wrote:

“As Peter Ewell (2009) points out in another NILOA paper, from its early days in higher education, assessment was “consciously separated from what went on in the classroom,” and especially from grading, as part of an effort to promote “objective” data gathering (p. 19). In response, many campuses felt they had no choice but to employ external tests and instruments that kept assessment distinct from the regular work of faculty as facilitators and judges of student learning. In fact, the real promise of assessment—and the area in which faculty involvement matters first and most—lies precisely in the questions that faculty, both individually and collectively, must ask about their students’ learning in their regular instructional work: what purposes and goals are most important, whether those goals are met, and how to do better. As one faculty member once told me, “assessment is asking whether my students are learning what I am teaching.”

Further, the notion was submitted that seeking faculty engagement should not be seen as a one-time achievement but as an ongoing and evolving effort that characterizes a campus assessment strategy. Inasmuch as the issue is not a new one for assessment, the corporate sentiment among conference participants is that garnering this engagement remains a key dynamic and often great challenge. Several presenters admonished institutions represented at the conference to engage in cross-institutional dialogue to share strategies on how to foster a deeper degree of faculty engagement.

The second recurring theme centers on a question of the value, strategy and purpose of assessment efforts, asking What’s it all for? Assessment is hard work. And the growing sentiment appears to be a desire to see campus assessment efforts translate into actual impact on student learning, beyond the collection of data and documentation for accreditation and/or certification. This pull for results that impact student learning is a call to move beyond data collection and planning of assessment to the informed and strategic improvement of teaching and learning based on the data. To make assessment more useful, we must include within our strategy an intentional approach to leverage data and documentation to help bridge the gaps between our current and improved realities. This process must be ongoing. And it undoubtedly must include faculty.

Finally, the third takeaway comes in the form of a resource. The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) had a strong presence at the 2011 Assessment Institute. Several of the organization’s staff and associates were keynote presenters and include a notable group of internationally recognized experts on assessment. NILOA presenters pointed conference participants to what they called the ‘crown jewel’ of the organization’s efforts, a recently-enhanced and robust website featuring a collection of papers, articles, presentations, websites and survey results compiled in alignment with the organization’s vision for discovering and adopting promising practices in the assessment of college student learning outcomes. Reviewing the organization’s website will quickly reveal its valuable contribution to the field of assessment and current issues, including those I’ve highlighted from the conference. Take a moment to explore this great resource by visiting www.learningoutcomeassessment.org.

It was certainly a rich experience to attend the conference and have the opportunity to share with institutions and hear the collective voice of higher education assessment practitioners.

Rachel Cubas
Academic Trainer & Consultant
Assessment & Analytics Group | Academic Training & Consulting (ATC)

References

Hutchings, P. (2010) Opening Doors to Faculty Involvement in Assessment. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

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