Assessment Assessed
Accreditation team to assess college's assessment practices

The college has worked for years to build a campuswide culture of assessment—a culture that values continuously using data and other evidence to improve every aspect of the institution.

How well it has done will be one area that a team from the Middle States Commission on Higher Education will zero in on during a campus reaccreditation visit in April.

“The drive for self-reflection is ours as an institution,” said Mehran Nojan, director of institutional research and assessment. As the college’s assessment system has evolved in recent years, she said, “We have taken a lot of the mystery out of assessment, and many in the faculty are moving from, ‘I have to do it’ to ‘I like to do it—the information I gather and analyze helps me teach more effectively.’”

Academic assessment begins with setting learning outcomes: What should students know and be able to do when they leave course X, major Y, program Z or the college? Faculty and staff in each department develop ways to measure those outcomes, identify areas for improvement and, importantly, develop ways to improve.

“We are trying to close the loop,” said Brad Wray, a philosophy faculty member and the college’s first assessment coordinator. “We define the goals, collect the data, then do something about it.”

The college’s self-study developed as part of the Middle States reaccreditation process cites examples where the college has done just that. The examples range from broad, collegewide endeavors, like designing facilities that best support learning, to such course-specific efforts as improving introductory economics. (Members of the campus community may download the self-study from the reaccreditation website.)

Faculty expertise

With the support of Interim Provost Lorrie Clemo, the Faculty Assembly’s Assessment Advisory Committee and the Center for Excellence in Learning and Teaching have helped organize a number of professional development opportunities and information-sharing initiatives aimed at building faculty expertise in using modern assessment methods as a tool to ensure that the college delivers the best education possible to its students, Wray said.

Among these steps, the college has:

* Hired consultant Barbara Walvoord, a nationally recognized expert who literally wrote the book on higher education assessment, “Assessment Clear and Simple: A Practical Guide for Institutions, Departments, and General Education.” Walvoord has made several trips to campus to work with departments and conduct workshops.

* Conducted several well-attended workshops on assessment techniques and strategies, the latest last month.

* Worked with departments to provide annual summaries of assessment activity, so that goals and outcomes can be communicated more effectively across campus.

* Helped develop a user-friendly rubric to assist departments in preparing and improving their assessment plans and a common language for talking and writing about assessment.

* Encouraged best practices in course design, assisted by resources of the National Center for Academic Transformation.

Continuously improving assessment

In the Middle States self-study, the college makes clear that the yearslong effort to develop effective assessment practices across campus is a work in progress.

“Although there were assessment activities across the college, they were not well organized,” Clemo said. “We have significantly improved our institutional effectiveness and implemented an all-campus assessment process that has helped the college move quickly toward full compliance with requirements for accreditation.”

A missing piece of academic assessment that the self-study identified is graduate program assessment. The solution will be to integrate it into the existing review cycle for undergraduate programs.

Jennifer Knapp, chair of the Assessment Advisory Committee, said plans include developing a website to increase visibility of assessment successes and share best practices across departments.

Another planned improvement is to link assessment results and budget decisions more clearly. Aligning assessment with resource allocation, Nojan said, means that making a case for a new faculty position, a new course or a revamped program, for example, requires marshaling the evidence collected through assessment.

Nojan, Wray and Knapp all praised the academic departments and faculty members for rising to the challenge—some grudgingly at first—and moving to own the assessment process. “One of the best things to come out of the Middle States process is that the culture and attitude toward assessment on this campus has shifted to the positive,” Knapp said.

(Posted: Feb 14, 2012)