Monday, November 14, 2011

Post-Secondary Assessment

Thank you Michael for the introduction, I am excited to be a part of In Socrates Wake. For my first post, I want to discuss an issue I have been thinking quite a bit about since I became in charge of learning assessment for my department this year.

One of the buzzwords in educational circles in the past few years has been accountability. No Child Left Behind cemented standards of accountability into educational policy for K-12, but the drive for accountability is no longer limited to elementary and secondary education (and might even be moving into graduate education). However, in order to be held accountable, student learning has to be assessed and assessing student learning at the post-secondary level is tricky. CCNY, where I teach, belongs to the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and as a part of our membership we engage in regular assessment, which is meant to give us the tools to measure our teaching efficiency at the institutional and departmental level. 

The idea of the assessment loop is quite simple: we come up with some clearly defined skills and knowledge that we want our students to learn (departmental learning objectives), we measure where students are with respect to those objectives, we then measure how far students have improved in meeting those objectives after they have gone through the program, and we use those results to improve our teaching and, thereby, improve student learning. In principle, the idea behind assessment is to systematize and measure what anyone concerned with successful teaching does intuitively when reflecting on their experiences in the classroom. You try X out in the classroom, see how it helps your students learn from looking at their papers, participation, tests, or other forms of assessment, and reevaluate whether you should continue to do X or try something different. In practice, there are many obstacles to its useful implementation at the departmental and institutional level and many reasons to be skeptical. I hope to explore both sides of this issue on future posts, but my question for this post is: for those of you have gone through an assessment process, did you find it helpful or not? And what kind of data or feedback did you find helpful (or did not find helpful)?


  1. Howard Wainer, Uneducated Guesses:
    Using Evidence to Uncover Misguided Education Policies (Princeton UP, 2011)

    offers some useful comments in his essay, "Assessing Teachers from Student Scores: On the Practicality of Value-Added Models" and others in this collection.

  2. Despite the difficulty of assessing student learning, I have found the conversations and focus it promotes to be extremely useful. The process of assessing learning provides a reason for faculty to discuss and make explicit the knowledge and skills we want out students to achieve. It establishes a framework for determining how best to promote student achievement of those knowledge and skills and determining whether students have achieved them. The assessment process also reminds us that we should seek to improve our programs.

    Because (as you write in your post) there are many obstacles to implementing assessment programs, it is important to proceed cautiously so faculty time is not wasted and incorrect or hasty conclusions are not drawn from the evidence produced by the assessment process.

    We just implemented a formal assessment program, but it looks like our effort this year will provide a great starting point for a discussion as to whether our students are achieving the knowledge and skills we want them to achieve.

  3. Jennifer, I'd describe myself as a moderate enthusiast about program level assessment. A great deal of skepticism about assessment (in my observation) comes from subjecting it to false dilemmas. For instance, many skeptics seem to think assessment must be strictly quantitative or is useless.

    We've been doing program assessment in my department for almost a decade, and I think our program is much the better for it. It's helped us to see which student skills and aptitudes they're really acquiring. As a result of our assessment findings, we now require all students, in every degree option, to take logic as a well as a 'great philosophers' course. We also introduced a proseminar that students are supposed to take after they declare their major and phased out a topical senior seminar course in favor of a thesis sequence. I think it's fair to say that assessment has revolutionized our curriculum.

    But of course you weren't talking about curricular assessment but about using assessment to improve *teaching*. And that's a different cup of tea. I'm very much in favor of empirically-minded SOTL. But certain structural features of contemporary universities make it harder for assessment to be applicable to teaching within a department or university, say. So I'm curious when you write:

    "we use those results to improve our teaching and, thereby, improve student learning."

    Do you actually assess the teaching methods, etc., in your department?

  4. @ David Austin. Thanks for the recommendation I'll look into.

    @ Chris Mayer I didn't meant to convey more skepticism than I feel. I'm glad to hear that you've had a positive experience it. I also think that assessment is a potentially valuable tool, and will hopefully learn from others here how to make it more useful.

    @ Michael We don't assess teaching methods in our department, but I've been pushing to incorporate assessment with teacher development. Since, it seems to me, one important consequence of assessment should be to find out what we are doing for our students not only at the program level but at the classroom level. We are currently moving to revamp our introductory level course and so I am crafting a survey for philosophy majors about how the introductory course they took prepared them for upper level philosophy courses. I'll post about it soon!


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