Being in charge of assessment within one’s unit involves more than measuring student learning outcomes. It’s about leading cultural change, a process that is best undertaken in collaboration with those who know the discipline, program, and students best—the faculty and staff.
In an interview with Academic Leader, Linda Neavel Dickens, director of institutional accreditation and program assessment at The University of Texas at Austin, offered advice on how to lead this collaborative process.
Take an experimental approach
Ideally, the assessment process should be created while the academic program is in development. Obviously, this is not possible for most well-established programs. “One of the things I love about assessment is that you really can take an experimental approach with it,” Dickens says. “Start with the things you’re curious about. What do you want to know about what’s working well and where you think there might be some pinch points in the curriculum? Start with what you have, knowing that the assessment plan is a living document. If you get halfway into the semester and realize you’re not going to be able to collect a particular piece of data, then change your plan. … Don’t be afraid to keep tweaking, because your assessment plan will never be done.”
Dickens recommends local control of the assessment process, getting faculty and staff to decide what data to collect and how to interpret and act upon the results. She recognizes that this way of operating can create ambiguity and “messiness, but realize that messiness also can make room for creativity, inquiry, and curiosity. There’s no one right way to do it.”
Foster a collective vision
Assessment should not be a stand-alone initiative. It should be part of a larger process. “Any assessment plan ideally is going to be based on a collective vision. It’s so easy for one person to take charge of the assessment and then individually talk to faculty members in order to find out what particular assessments or tests they are using and then pick out all the available assessment products. When you approach the project like that you’re not really looking at the program in a strategic or coordinated way. You’re doing what’s convenient rather than what may be most effective,” Dickens says.
A better approach is to convene a committee, perhaps a subset of the curriculum committee, to talk about what’s important to the program, what assessments are currently in place, and what measures would be useful to implement, Dickens says.
Build on faculty members’ curiosity
Assessment can be interesting and relevant to faculty members. The key is to tap into their curiosity.
“I really try to approach [assessment] from a collaborative point of view. I find out what the faculty are interested in, their values, and concerns about what’s going on. I’m there to provide probing questions and a framework for them to begin to understand what they are already interested in in terms of assessment. They get to work out of their curiosity. One of the things about assessment that makes sense to faculty is that it’s not too dissimilar to the research process,” Dickens says. “The conversation has to come from what they’re interested in and what’s relevant to them.”
However, faculty interests need to be balanced with what’s best for the students. This often leads to in-depth conversations about a program’s learning outcomes (i.e., content knowledge versus critical thinking skills).
When faculty uncover information about their students, it tends to create momentum for an assessment initiative. “It gives them purpose, and it helps them focus their efforts and make evidence-based decisions,” Dickens says.
Adopt a learning model
Based on the work of Chris Argyris, Dickens recommends operating from a learning model rather than a control model when leading assessment initiatives.
A control model of leadership is appropriate in two very different types of situations. “You want somebody who is going to make unilateral decisions very quickly in order to address an emergency situation or, in the case of something you’re really familiar with, a routine you don’t have to think really hard about,” Dickens says.
However, in an uncertain, complex situation that involves many people, “acting out of the control model basically shuts down any opportunity for collaboration or for deeper learning,” Dickens says.
In such situations, it’s better to operate from a learning model “trying to have people couch what they’re trying to do in terms of learning,” Dickens says.
This involves looking for opportunities to uncover uncertainty, making space for disagreements, and having people share their concerns. “It means that people slow down in their conversations, which is sometimes hard to do. One of the things that makes that more difficult for assessment is that we have external stakeholders who might be demanding information,” Dickens says.
Despite pressure from stakeholders, it’s important to have a conversation about what individuals value and what they want. “The learning model really upholds transparency, and you have to be very intentional about creating transparency by sharing all the information you have about the decision even if that information might not support your point of view,” Dickens says. “And you have to be willing to share information whether or not it makes you look good, not just to argue for what you want to have happen but to explain what you want to have happen and your reasoning for wanting it to happen, and allow people to push back.”
This pushback increases shared understanding of the situation. Exposing your thinking and having others expose their thinking help decrease the amount of unintended consequences and increase the chances “of having what you expect to happen actually happen,” Dickens says. “One of the great difficulties of doing this in higher education is that people are rewarded for their intelligence, their quick decision making, their expertise. Chris Argyris wrote this wonderful seminal article called “Teaching Smart People How to Learn,” and it shows how people are rewarded for already knowing things rather than for going through the messiness of learning and changing their own behaviors.
“The best leaders actually live out of that paradigm of learning and messiness and having shared understanding with the people they’re working with, not out of trying to control a situation. Assessment processes are most effective when people share the responsibility, the accountability, the learning, the messiness, and it’s so much more representative of the deeper learning processes and it aids in the cultural shift that assessment can help produce.”