In 2006, when I was an assistant professor on the tenure track, I wrote an essay that was published in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Those were the early(ish) days of the assessment movement in higher education and I was feeling the pain. The essay was really meant as an homage to the faculty in my doctoral program who had taught me to love playing with ideas. The loss I was feeling was what I described in that essay as the loss of the chance to wander. Specifying my learning outcomes seemed to rein in that wandering to the detriment of a good Socratic learning experience.
Well, as luck would have it, I wrote that little essay at the same time that the Spellings Report was released. My essay was attached to the back of a special section devoted to the work of the Commission on the Future of Higher Education and the Chronicle gave my essay the title, “Taking All the Fun Out of Education.” I received a lot of feedback, mostly from other faculty feeling frustrated with the too many rules that assessment seemed to be creating. I also heard from my boss and found myself in charge of assessment in my discipline and then my school shortly thereafter. That’s what complaining will get you.
Since that time, I have moved into administrative roles and the largest part of my job is assessment. When I served as the Dean of Arts & Sciences I was responsible for making sure that every program had an assessment plan and that the plan was followed. As Provost, I’ve expanded my focus from the assessment of programs to the assessment of general education, the development and assessment of university outcomes, and the appropriate measures of our academic success programs. I read numerous program review reports every year, serve on visiting teams for university accreditation, and coordinate the writing of our institutional self-study. It is assessment all day every day.
Today I embrace assessment in ways that I did not in 2006. There is value in setting goals at the course level, in the major, for the whole degree, or for a specific program, if those goals are not overly complicated. When faculty and program administrators take the time to define those goals, they invite us to consider the best strategies for achieving them. The goals are an invitation to start conversations about teaching strategies and the outcomes we value most as a university. They are an invitation to share ideas with our colleagues and to engage the robust literature about innovative and inclusive pedagogies. They are also a clear path to articulating our value to students, families, and the larger publics we serve.
I see the value and even the positive impact that assessment can have when our goals are not overly prescriptive. We do need to make room for some wandering, some inspiration, and some innovation. If we set very narrowly defined goals, we will stop all of that good stuff from happening. Still, there are some things that students must know. Chemists should know enough to keep laboratory work safe and productive. Nurses must know how treatments interact to protect the health of the patient. Musicians need to understand the scales that underpin the compositions they are creating. Historians need to understand the process of vetting information as they place it in a context for describing connections between events. Yes, there are some basics that might well be measured in traditional exams with right and wrong answers. This stuff is important.
But there are lots of places where our goals are broader and perhaps even more important. These goals are about the perspectives each discipline can offer, forms of reasoning to be cultivated, cultural awareness to be explored, the ability to communicate effectively, and the ability to weave new information and experiences into a defensible worldview. These goals need to be assessed, because they are the heart of an undergraduate degree. They help us describe the value we add to the lives of our students in terms that we recognize as important and meaningful. Assessment for the broader goals is more nuanced than an exam, but it doesn’t have to be overwhelming. The key is focusing on a few important examples, not on everything.
But you know all of this already. The point I am trying to make is that using our assessments to refine our strategies can actually be rewarding. Seeing the impact of a change in curriculum or pedagogy or other interventions can be thrilling, especially when the results are improved outcomes. Letting that strategy go when it isn’t yielding results is also rewarding. It settles a question and helps us move on. The critical thing is not just the doing of assessment, it is using our results.
I’m not grumbling about assessment anymore (although I still want to protect time to wander through ideas). We shouldn’t overdo it, because then it will overwhelm us, and it will lose its value. But we must be sure to fully reflect on the results. We need to carve out time for the conversations that should ensue in departments, on committees, and with the full university after each assessment occurs. It is in those conversations that we will find paths to improvement. It is in those conversations that we will continue to develop our visions for great learning experiences. It is in those conversations that we might have some fun.