Many people often view assessment as a laborious burden, something that serves no good other purpose than accreditation obligations. Building a culture of assessment can help faculty see its value for continuous improvement and encourage them to participate in assessment efforts in meaningful ways.
In an interview with Academic Leader, Fang Du, director of assessment and program development at the University of Mount Union, discussed what a culture of assessment looks like and shared lessons learned at her institution.
According to Du, there are four hallmarks of a culture of assessment:
- Higher learning first—“Of course, every campus is about learning, but traditionally the indicators of that learning have been retention rates and graduation rates, the curriculum offered, and the accumulation of credits. But these are not what I would say are ‘higher learning.’ If the institution put higher learning first, all learning—regardless of discipline, general education, major, or minor—would be based on overall learning goals and competency. [In addition, learning] would incorporate high-impact practices, such as study abroad, experiential learning, internships, and writing-intensive courses. More important, higher learning is reflective, integrative, and lifelong,” Du says.
- Assessment as a prerequisite and central condition of that higher learning—Every teacher does assessment in the classroom, but that doesn’t constitute a culture of assessment at the institution, Du says. Real assessment that is the central condition of higher learning has the following characteristics:
- Assessment plans are comprehensive policies at the program and institutional level.
- Assessment is outcome-based rather than input-based.
- Staff and faculty work together to contribute to program-level and institutional-level assessment. It’s not an individual faculty effort.
- Organizational structures that support assessment—Mount Union has a faculty committee on assessment and uses the Academic Quality Improvement Program, a continuous quality improvement approach that is integrated into the institution’s administrative structures. The university also has a policy for periodic program review, which requires annual reporting and a visit by an external reviewers every seven years.
- Ongoing professional development opportunities for faculty and staff involved with assessment—“Nurturing people in terms of assessment is very important. It’s a discipline. It’s a thing to learn. It’s not that you get a PhD and you know how to do assessment. Professional development needs to be continuous,” Du says.
For the past three years, Mount Union has offered five days of workshops in May (right after commencement), a time when faculty traditionally leave campus for the summer. Participation in these workshops are voluntary. In the first year, the dean gave each participating faculty a $500 stipend. Now, although the workshops are still voluntary, they are a prerequisite for teaching in the university’s new Integrative Core.
When Du became assessment director in 2009, she worked with the assessment committee to change the program review process from a curriculum review and resource-counting process to one that is based on learning outcomes for each major and minor.
The assessment committee, which consists of six standing members, created a glossary of assessment terms and uses professional development workshops to help faculty understand the relationships among course-level, program-level, and institution-level assessment.
Another goal of ongoing professional development is to help faculty consider the uses and benefits of assessment beyond producing reports for accreditation. Du explains that assessment can help with continuous improvement, and that although assessment requires time and effort on the part of faculty, it actually reduces the amount of time and effort put into continuous improvement.
“Think of assessment as a means, not the end. So many people think assessment is the end. ‘You asked me to do assessment. I did it. I’m done.’ But no, assessment is only a means to help you achieve your end [continuous improvement]. In order to do that work efficiently, you have to embark on assessment,” Du says.
In her time as assessment director, Du has learned the following lessons (grouped by assessment culture hallmarks):
- Higher learning
- Teaching content is not enough. Teaching habits of mind is more important.
- Professors no longer stay in their discipline silos.
- We need to have more discussions about pedagogy.
- We should start to design key assignments/common rubrics together, not as individuals collecting artifacts, because they all take years.
- Assessment as a prerequisite and central condition of learning
- Listening/understanding is important.
- “Faculty allies are crucial. I found a few faculty leaders on campus and I started working with them one by one, which helped me bring that assessment ‘song’ to other people. I’m sure on each campus you can find several discipline leaders who have a deep understanding of how important assessment is. I have been very grateful for those faculty leaders who are willing to work with me in each stage. Once I have them, things become a little easier, because they’re so respected on our campus,” Du says.
- “An effective assessment structure integrates administrative leadership and faculty governance bodies. You need administrative leadership and faculty and staff. Expertise is significant. You need to have someone who really has assessment expertise in general, not just assessment in biology or assessment in education, while you’re beginning to establish that culture,” Du says.
- Take faculty morale into consideration during times of rapid change. When the University of Mount Union was building its assessment culture, “people were frustrated. We almost asked them to do too much, to have a new curriculum and learn all things assessment. They had just redesigned every course they’d been teaching. It was a time of rapid change. We should have taken people’s morale into consideration,” Du says.
- There are emotional investments in assessment, technology, and curriculum.
- You can require a program/department to do things, but do not require individual faculty members to do anything.
- A new curriculum and its assessment does not have to be perfect, but it needs to have the capacity for continuous improvement.