Evaluation, Quality

Assessment is fun?

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.

Higher Education, Return on Investment, Workforce Development

The Details: Education & Employers

A series of events last week led me to participate in several conversations about the alignment of our university’s program offerings with Connecticut’s workforce needs. These conversations are not new, nor are they surprising. Since our founding in 1913, WCSU has been responding to the needs of the region by growing our program offerings, assessing their quality, and evolving as new discoveries and career paths emerge. Our professional programs align with industry standards and our more broadly liberal arts offerings provide ample opportunity for students to explore the many paths open to them, through research, internships, service learning, and so on. Call it workforce development, career preparation, or access to the American Dream – this is what we do.

Still, I was struck by the confluence of initiatives coming from all corners, so I spent a few hours reading a recent report from the Chronicle of Higher Education titled, Building Tomorrow’s Workforce: What employers want you to know. In this compilation of interviews with business leaders and career development professionals in higher education there were some important observations about the complexity of aligning education with what employers say they want. There were also some important gaps in the conversations. Those gaps reflect some important details that we all need to understand.

First, not all workforce needs are equal and conflating them is not satisfying for anyone. In our region of the country and elsewhere, there is a pressing demand for an expanded workforce in healthcare. At a four-year university, the pathways to much of this work is through the nursing degree and allied health programs. At two-year colleges, there are opportunities to become Certified Nursing Assistants, phlebotomists, EMTs, and to earn the first level nursing credential. Each of these paths are great opportunities for students and all of them will lead to employment. They are appropriately tiered in terms of the return on investment, with a relatively low-cost for CNA, phlebotomy, and EMT, and somewhat more for the two-year degree, and more for the four-year degree. All of this makes sense in terms of opportunities for graduates and meeting regional workforce needs.

But we can’t keep up with demand. CNAs move on quickly so there is a need for constant replenishment. EMTs are only compensated in some scenarios, so there is some instability there. Nursing programs are working hard to educate as many students as they can, but there are limits on the number of clinical sites, which slows the pipeline. In other words, the education we provide is aligned with the regional workforce needs, but a combination of factors external to higher education is making it hard to keep up with demand.

Then there is the ever-present need for people who understand all things related to computers and the internet. From coding, to cybersecurity, to web development, the demand is clear. The shortfall in appropriately skilled people has led to boot camps, free online programs, the dropping of degree requirements in favor of tests of competence, etc. These short paths to entering reasonably compensated positions is not a bad thing. The industries making these moves are supporting the preparation necessary for entry level opportunities that can be good for the people who take advantage of them.

But, then they want the rest of what we offer — the maturity, the critical thinking, the collaboration and problem-solving skills, and even the understanding of the nuances of cultures — and those short-term credentials don’t get students there. Employers also frequently need the more extensive education in computer science and cybersecurity that we provide. Certainly, those more robust skills and understandings are the path from entry level to more advanced positions. Without them, those short-term credentials may ultimately limit opportunities, rather than grow them.

Universities and colleges do revise and adapt as quickly as we can, but in technology fields new things emerge at a pace that is breathtaking. The short-term paths may be good opportunities for our students, if the employers will also create paths to the rest of the educational opportunities we provide. Support for continued education for those who come through those boot camps would be a great place to start.

What about the degrees we offer that don’t neatly align with a single career trajectory? Well, most jobs require combinations of skills and attitudes that are not aligned with particular majors and a plethora of studies about “what employers want” keep identifying the essential learning outcomes of a liberal arts degree. We do that well. Still, there are some components of positions that a specific course or two might address. For example, there is a high demand for graduates who can support social media sites, so some grounding in how websites work and how to analyze interaction within them might be useful. Many places need people who are able to interpret and communicate about basic quantitative data, so a statistics class is in order. Then there are the many jobs that ask for employees who are adept at interacting with diverse populations of people (in the workplace and in the community). Those skills can come from any number of courses and experiences in our classrooms and in the internships we hope that many organizations will provide. We can be more intentional about promoting these combinations of skills to our students; we hope that employers will make these skills visible in their recruitment language.

The popular perception that higher education is somehow averse to supporting workforce development couldn’t be further from the truth. But supporting the workforce needs of a state is a collaboration. Employers need to understand the barriers we face in meeting their expectations quickly. Limited opportunities for clinical placements make it difficult for us to increase the desired educational pipelines (healthcare, mental health, social work, etc.). Financial realities often make it difficult for students to take advantage of internships. The pace of technological development makes it difficult to re-imagine curriculum quickly. We are not being obstinate; we just face some practical challenges.

These are the kinds of details that need constant attention as we strive to provide the best opportunities for our students and for our region. They are tricky details, but not insurmountable. We are happy to partner up and sort them out. Let’s talk.

Engagement, Hope, Resilience

Skeptical Optimism

It is raining today in Connecticut. The children waiting for the school buses this morning were clad in rain jackets and protective parents held their umbrellas over their impossible to still children. Cars plowed through the puddles creating splashes that made those efforts to stay dry futile anyway. No matter, everyone was smiling. We are grateful for this wonderful replenishing rain.

Long strings of sunny days are a wonderful thing, but we all know that without the rain we perish. The soil needs moisture, and so do we. Sometimes, we even need the break from activity that the rain might postpone. Rain not only nourishes, but it balances us, and makes us question our devotion to blue skies.

I know, I’m going on too long about the rain (I’m just so happy to see it), but it has got me thinking about the kind of balance we try to achieve in all educational settings. We are charged with educating our students about all manner of things – things that are complicated, things that don’t have clear answers, things that are impressive, but not yet done. This is an exciting and daunting responsibility that requires us to be able to celebrate both the sun and the rain.

Consider the work that science faculty must do. Discoveries in science require theories, hypotheses, experiments, results, new hypotheses, and ultimately new theories. All of this is natural for scientists; they see no problem with this cycle. For the uninitiated, though, the certainty of scientific results is shaken by any real understanding of this process. All scientists and students of science must find ways to embrace the temporary nature of our certainty. Each new breakthrough is a miracle that should be celebrated, but also distrusted. For those who find the balance, the path to the next set of questions is the win. They find a way to enjoy the wins (and the knowledge generated by the losses), while maintaining the absolutely necessary skepticism about what they think they know.

Then there are faculty charged with educating our future artists. Learning to be an artist requires a balance of technique, inspiration, and context. Faculty and students in the arts move from the position of the paintbrush, the horn, the toe, to the traditions of the genre, to the reinvention of the rules, often in the same sentence. For the uninitiated, though, art is all opinion and talent, without any of that hard work or precision. In fact, the most successful artists make all of the hard work invisible. The challenge for faculty is not just about convincing students to do the hard work, (counteracting the cultural narrative), it is also about doing so in a way that makes room for the inspiration and yes, talent. The critiques that are central to the creative process must help students find their way to excellence, not make them feel lesser. It is a balance of celebrating success and finding the path forward from the failures.

Ok, I’ve stalled long enough; then there is history. By history, I mean the history of everything-social structures, political structures, art and invention. Oh boy, how we’ve politicized this! Whenever we are charged with guiding students through the past to where we are today, we are going to be stepping into some tricky waters. Our histories are full of awe-inspiring moments. I’m particularly happy about the revolutions that were supported by the invention of the printing press (things like the way we do science, the way we imagine individual and human rights, the way in which governments are formed, come to mind). Understanding the importance of contact between different groups of people, how their ideas about right, wrong, medicine, or art interact with each other is both fascinating and sometimes unsettling. There are exciting tales to tell. But of course, there are no histories or societies without great achievements and great failures.

For those in the humanities and the social sciences, this is obvious. They are adept at examining the complexities of how right, or good, or even success is defined. They are also adept at seeing problems in our assumptions and places where work still needs to be done (and work always needs to be done). It is incredibly important that they have open and honest conversations with their students about the good, the bad, and the ugly that we find in our histories and social structures. They must be fair about the ambiguity in what they see and acknowledge that the meanings ascribed today are likely to change tomorrow as we learn more and expand our thinking. They work to elicit thoughtful critiques and ideas from their students and wrestle with the contradictions those observations may reveal. And, like their colleagues in science and in art, it is important that they help their students find the joy in the good stuff and the path to improvement for the not so great stuff – perhaps with some inspiration and talent.

Eboo Patel describes some of what I’m trying to get at in his essay: Teach Students to Be Builders, not Critics. Patel argues that criticism only goes so far, students need a path to action. I agree with this, although I think more of this is happening in our classrooms than is widely understood. Still, it is a good reminder that as we insist on the fullness of conversations that should happen in all of our disciplines, conversations that must include the failures and the successes, we should always help our students imagine themselves building something better. It is a balance of skepticism and optimism that we hope to strike.

So, I’m back to the rain. Some will curse it as their plans are cancelled, but most of us recognize the essential role it plays in our lives. Those streams we swim in are re-filled, those forests we walk through are lush again, that day of rest from our ballgame is healing our muscles. We can embrace the balance of sun and rain. Let’s also embrace that balance of the great and the awful in our histories and our capacity to grow; the discoveries that cure our ills and and the knowledge gained from those that ended in disaster; the inspirations that brought forth breaktaking new performances and those that resulted in giant ugly messes, from which new inspiration will certainly arise.

Embracing failures, mistakes, and limits are all essential to learning. So is the excitement of being able to see the next question, the place for improvement, the path forward when nothing seems to be working. Dedicated faculty all over the world are starting the fall term, striving to achieve the right balance between those essential pieces of a good education. Balancing them is the complexity and the joy of this profession. It is the sun and the rain.

Growth Mindset, Resilience

Endings Are Beginnings

It is the end of the spring semester and for the first time in ten years I am enjoying the wrap up of teaching a class. It has been fun to have the immediacy of contact with students for a change. Although I do participate in student events, the routine conversations that faculty can have in class, are outside of my usual experiences. It is just a matter of hours in the day, not a lack of interest. Serving as a last-minute replacement has allowed me to re-engage those routine conversations. I’ve learned a lot from the students in my class. I always do.

Now we’re up to final presentations and final grades. As I take on the evaluation of the students, I know I am really evaluating myself. What could I have done better? How might I have structured my assignments for a more thorough development of the key concepts in the course? How might I have changed my behavior to better inspire punctuality and commitment to the material? What assignments or readings might have better conveyed the value of what the students are learning? Should I have considered a few applications outside of class to build commitment to the quality of work? The list goes on.

Yes, final grades matter to students and their futures, but for me they have always been about reflective teaching. As tedious as the last round of grading can be, it has always inspired me to think about how I might do better work. This is when I build a summer reading list focused on the discipline and on pedagogy. People are always surprised that those readings are a source of relaxation for me, but they are. They always inspire.

This semester’s visit to the classroom has reminded me how much excitement I feel by the endings each year. I don’t want to let that pass unnoticed, so, I am wondering how to capture it in my administrative duties.

Well, in some ways I always do. This is the season of annual reports and evaluations. I have the pleasure of reading about so many accomplishments each year – new programs, new awards, new research – and they never fail to inspire. I also read about the less wonderful stuff – enrollment challenges, retention challenges, or gaps in funding that might keep a good idea from moving forward. Those are less fun to read about. Still, they are an opportunity for me to think about how I can do better. In that spirit, I am transforming the questions I ask of my teaching as follows:

  • How do I better communicate the value of the initiatives that start in Academic Affairs? Do I need more data? Do I need to distribute readings? Do we need more workshops? Do I need to visit all governance bodies to discuss each initiative? Do I need to visit all departments?
  • How do I better support and coordinate the initiatives that do not start in Academic Affairs? The majority of the efforts that I have been involved in over the years did not actually start with me. Teaching faculty, administrative faculty, student leaders, governance bodies, and the facilities team, are usually the inspiration for projects of all kinds. Sometimes they come to me directly, sometimes I learn about them later. This gap in timing may be an indication of a coordination problem that can undermine a perfectly good idea. How do I help these initiatives thrive?
  • How do I structure our activities in ways that better connect the university community to each other? To the community? Can I find a way to help strengthen those connections and inspire more follow through on the activities we host and the next steps they inspire?
  • What might I eliminate from our long list of priorities to allow for greater attention to the most important things? It is easy to keep adding to a syllabus or a list of goals, but that always leads to too many tasks, initiatives, and ideas. How do I shrink the to-do list so we can focus our efforts productively? How do I prioritize effectively?
  • How do I set deadlines that are achievable?

Yes, it is the end of the semester and I will grade final projects and evaluate the work of all that we do in the academic programs. The pile of things to read is tall (metaphorically, of course, things are all digital now) and the learning opportunities are vast. I am excited to get started because I always end up feeling inspired by the work completed, and, yes, a little worried about what did not get done. But inspired wins every time.

I love the endings. They bear a tinge of sadness and a feeling of loss as another year ends and another group of students graduates. But endings also inspire hope for the future, providing a perfect opportunity for reflection, and a chance to do better next year. I am grateful that education is built on this cycle. It is a cycle that builds optimism, and optimism is the best foundation for beginnings.

Community, Higher Education, Resilience

A Plan of Action

We are going to have a retreat. Yes, that is the next step for WCSU, a retreat to help us sort through what we are doing now and determine opportunities for a better future. As I made the announcement, I could hear both the collective groan and the impatient calls for a concrete strategy for improvement. We have had retreats before, and strategic plans, and discussions about curriculum, or advising, or even branding, but we keep ending up in the same place. That same place is characterized by small, isolated moves that do not transform the whole. We need to transform the whole.

I understand the collective sigh about the notion of a retreat. From the perspective of the campus community the retreats are not leading to action. That is not quite true. There has been action attached to both the Strategic Plan and the Budget Retreat that occurred just before the pandemic. For my own sanity, I must list a few of those actions.

Goal one of the Strategic Plan asked us to grow our support for a diverse community of learners. To that end we’ve solidified the FY program, added a peer mentor program, and transformed our Education Access Program. These moves positively impacted our graduation rates (pre-COVID) and showed signs of supporting better retention. We hope to see a larger impact now that we are fully operational again.

The other component of that diverse community of learners was a focus on adults. We have done a lot around graduate programs and most recently received approval from our accreditor to expand our online offerings. This will strengthen the opportunities we have available for returning undergraduates. We plan to launch options for that group in the fall.

Goal two asked us to focus on our processes and services for a diverse community of learners. COVID-19 helped us accelerate this work tremendously. Students can now access most services remotely, thus allowing them to get support at the time they need it, instead of between 8:00-4:30. Digital forms & signatures, remote access to advising, tutoring, career support, registration, and financial services all make our students’ lives better.

One other component of goal two (and part of goal one), focused on career education. We improved the offerings in our Career Success Center, with new technologies, trainings, and access to remote internships. We also added career education courses (on a pilot basis), as we had planned in the strategic plan action steps. Evaluation of their impact is next.

Goal three focused on community pride. Several efforts occurred that should be acknowledged. First, we did increase weekend events for our residential students, and we offered more social events for faculty and staff pre-pandemic. We hope to bring them back soon. And the long awaited decision about a new mascot is now complete. Go Wolves!

Goal four focused on branding. We took some initial steps with the help of a consultant, which resulted in new colors and some improved consistency in materials. The recent hiring of new Director of Marketing and Communication should jumpstart this initiative. I can already see an impact on our website.

Goal five focused on creating a self-sustaining financial model. We made some strides in evaluating a limited number of academic programs, but everything else stalled on this one. More focused action must take place now.

There was a budget retreat (pre-pandemic) that included representatives from all campus constituencies. That meeting confirmed much of what the Strategic Plan had outlined. There was general agreement that we should grow graduate programs, focus on adult learners, focus on supporting some of our students who meet admission requirements but need extra attention, find a way to re-imagine summer, and work on become an HSI. It also focused on some cost-cutting measures, but the ideas in that category were few and far between. The items focusing on graduate and adult learners have been underway. The rest has stalled.

I recount all of this because I recognize just how exhausting the notion of a retreat without action sounds. The truth is that there has been action, but the impetuses behind that action and the results have not been well communicated. That is something that is going to have to change this time around. The commitment to action is of the utmost importance for us. Everyone will need to play a part, and everyone will need to be on the same page as to what is happening when.

So, for this retreat, the goal is to establish a plan of action for WCSU. We will first take the time to review the realities of our position. We’ll examine the costs and results of all that we do and, I hope, come to a full understanding of our place in the higher education context right now. Then we will get to work. That work will involve focused conversations about what we can grow and what we should stop doing. We will need to reimagine how we function as an organization and where we might change our structures to improve that function and/or gain efficiencies and reduce costs. We will try to determine a campus focus that helps us carve out our own special place in the higher education ecology of our region. It will be a very busy two days.

The result of this retreat must not be a report. It must be a plan of action that will move us forward together. It must include a clarity of purpose and definitive steps to achieve that purpose. It must describe a path first to stability and then to prosperity. The full community must endorse the plan so that we can move forward together. The retreat is necessary for the development of this plan. The action is necessary for our survival.