Tuesday, March 12, 2013

On Assessment

Philosopher Steven Hales recently published an article at the website of The Chronicle of Higher Education entitled "Who's Assessing the Assessors' Assessors?" There is much worth thinking about here. In my experience, most faculty find outcomes assessment to be at best tedious, and are suspicious of the need, methodology, and even the motives for it. According to Hales, this sort of assessment is an "epistemological quagmire," and concludes that "the mavens of outcomes assessment do exactly the wrong thing—they pretend to have some other method that is the royal road to truth when, prey to the same doubts, it is no more than the path to ignorance."

I think the philosophical points raised by Hales are compelling, though it is the case that at least some faculty do not grade in such a manner that can be characterized as an accurate assessment of the work and progress made by a student over the course of the semester relative to the course objectives. It seems pretty clear that outcomes assessment is here to stay, such that relying on grades given by faculty will not stand alone as a method of assessment. However, Hales has offered a strong case that outcomes assessment over and above course grades is deeply problematic.


  1. I thought the argument was pretty weak. Wouldn't having evidence from two different sources that are using two different assessment methods actually increase one's evidence that the student is really learning what they're supposed to be learning? It's true that the professor and the assessor might be equally fallible, but surely we can't jump to the conclusion that evidence from the professor + assessor is as fallible as evidence from just the professor. I'm no epistemologist, but that struck me as a problematic step in the argument. If I want to know how good a paper of mine is or what I need to work on, I ask as many people as possible.

  2. I think I'm with Jennifer: I respect Hales as a philosopher but don't find his criticisms of outcomes assessment terribly compelling.

    For one, Hales seems to assume that course grades *are* valid measures of student learning, making OA redundant. But many faculty (still!) don't think in terms of learning outcomes and don't teach in ways attuned to those outcomes. Or they don't develop evaluative instruments that adequately track student learning. Or they use curved grading, which (if the point of outcomes assessment is to gauge student mastery rather than to compare them to one another) is incompatible with outcomes assessment altogether. So I have doubts that we should make such benign assumptions about how well course grades measure student learning in the first place.

    Hales also seems to think that OA is predominantly aimed at learning at the course level. But at every institution I'm familiar with, OA is directed at objects larger than courses: academic programs or curricula, typically. OA is not redundant if what we're evaluating are objects than courses.

    Hales may be right that the methods used in OA are not necessarily better at gauging student learning. His criticisms may show that OA is problematic, but not "deeply" so — and not more so than course grades themselves.

    1. There have certainly been instances of OA being imposed on faculty in ways that increase workload without adding anything to the faculty's (or students') understanding of what students are learning. In this article, Hales hasn't defined what he means by OA, so we can only assume that he means a burdensome requirement to collect data on student performance for someone other than the faculty. However, the creation of learning outcomes by faculty and the use of these outcomes with students in the learning process can do a lot to clarify what's expected in the practice of philosophy. For an good example of this, see John Rudisill's 2011 article in Teaching Philosophy, "The Transition from Teaching Philosophy to Doing Philosophy."

  3. Your points are well-taken. I suppose my own experience of assessment is such that it seems so far removed from enhancing education or giving me useful information as an instructor that perhaps biases me against it. I still think Hales raises some cogent points, though.


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