Why is assessment necessary?
When pursuing a Ph.D. — which is essentially the only type of training faculty receive to prepare for a career in higher education — our intellectual pursuits tend to narrowly focus on developing content area expertise and the ability to conduct independent, empirical research.
No one tells a professor-in-training about the service work requirement in the form of assessment activities, or even what higher education assessment looks like as a formalized professional activity.
Recently, I was sharing time with a friend who enjoys a professor emerita status at a major state university. Over beers, she shared, “No one ever told me what this all is, or even how to do it. I was so confused when I accepted my first tenure-track position.” But, administrators echo compulsory calls from accreditors which demand that academe’s disciplinary experts and rightful owners of the curriculum (faculty) lead such efforts. Albeit several years old, survey results revealed that administrators find that encouraging faculty involvement in assessment efforts is one of their greatest challenges, and the reality continues to persist despite efforts to hone the larger agenda.
In light of the sobering fact that engaging assessment work gets at the heart of maintaining excellence at an institution, what methods can we reasonably expect to call upon when trying to maximize faculty’s involvement? This is a fair question.
Methods to Encourage Faculty’s Involvement in Assessment Activities
No matter which method or framework you employ to assure that your faculty are active participants in institutional assessment processes, you will never achieve success in maintaining your accreditation agenda unless key institutional actors fully understand the meaning, purpose, and value of higher education assessment.
The funny thing is that although we work fervently at promoting students’ understanding of an assignment’s purpose, or to ensure that they make the necessary connections for grasping why they do some type of course-related activity, we often throw out this approach when working with colleagues. Bad idea. This is not necessarily a developmental issue, but rather a human one.
For instance, if we didn’t understand that going to the dentist regularly is helpful to ensure long-term oral health (and that we don’t spend thousands on treatments later), then we likely wouldn’t go at all. But, thankfully, we get that the mildly uncomfortable visit yields longstanding benefits. Certainly, going to the dentist is not worse an experience than effectively assessing student learning.
Nevertheless, shaping our behavior demands an advanced finesse and delicacy.
That said, my itemization and detailing of 5 strategies to encourage faculty involvement in assessment rely on the assumption that an awareness and understanding of the practice exists, at a minimum. Without further ado:
- Link assessment work to scholarship. Generally speaking, the faculty know how to do research, as their scholarly and creative activities are hallmark training characteristics in a terminal degree program. En masse, professors tend to also understand the importance and meaning such work. By linking the two activities, one’s understanding is passively carried over to the more nuanced and less understood phenomenon. We will revel in shared success if we get the faculty to think about assessment as an evaluation method intended to deepen our institutional understanding of the teaching and learning environment. Notwithstanding, this is a shared effort and requires broad support. By adopting a framework of scholarship as teaching and learning, like Boyer’s Model, for instance, we can begin to conduct more consequential work in the area (more on this later in another blog entry).
- Establishing a culture of assessment. This item naturally flows from the previous, such that small practices begin to reshape an institution’s atmosphere and refine the faculty repertoire. The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) has written extensively about accomplishing such a cultural shift and so I won’t belabor the point here.
- Identify sources of resistance. Each institution is truly unique and has its own set of obstacles or ways or navigating certain spaces, and so discovering what works at your college or university will require an investigation of perceived roadblocks. Information about your institution’s sources of resistance can (and must) be used to modify or refine your efforts to sell an embraced campus culture of assessment. When working with your faculty or administrative colleagues, consider these questions in your discussions: How might perceptions of sources of resistance differ across institutional actors, like the faculty (full-time and part-time) or even the Board of Trustees? Are we assessing for improvement or for accountability (major differences here)? While these tough questions will surely lead to more of the same, here are some common sources of hindrance I’ve witness across my consultations for other colleges and universities: some folks feel threatened by change or any new initiatives, some university agents simply don’t understand or refuse to adopt a mindset that supports a robust compliance agenda, the faculty are overworked and underpaid, a parity of personnel is satisfied with the status quo, or perhaps disharmony exists between major leadership groups. While I’ve witnessed the gamut of obstructionist behaviors, this information should supercharge your productive discourse.
- Request a show-and-tell. Request that an exemplary faculty member deliver a training session in a group setting, like a beginning of the year faculty orientation or a more frequently occurring department meeting. The show-and-tell discussion will focus on one of the presenter’s course syllabi. During the session, the presenter ought to share: expectations for the course and students, student preparation weaknesses, and how the assessment instruments are designed. If the dialogue is robust, then an engaged audience may interrogate or probe the feedback to test for its veracity or generalizability limits, especially if rapport is established between the presenter and the attendees. What’s more, consider asking the presenter to offer detail about how the course is fits within the curriculum. In other words, if the faculty’s demonstration involves a Creative Problem Solving class, then the instructor might seriously consider unpacking how the course’s learning outcomes map onto others, or even how the skills students gain in the class support another institutional objective, an accreditation core competency, or other assessment initiative.
- Incentivize participation. Despite the lamentations of some misinformed groups, faculty members work hard in their practice (or, at least the good ones do, and thankfully they’re certainly the majority). The fact is that the compensation faculty receive during the first part of their academic career – and often much longer – are truly subsistence wages. The earnings often do not allow postsecondary educators to live a middle class lifestyle. Given this reality, and the others explored in this blog entry, economic incentives undeniably serve as the strongest source of motivation. Of course, the decided figures will produce varying amounts of drive to perform, and conversations about their appropriateness should be courageous, if not fearless. This approach is especially the case when we think about part-time or adjunct participation in assessment work. After all, the majority of higher education faculty serve in an adjunct capacity and accreditors expect institutions to understand how they’re part-timers are engaged outside of instructional delivery, if at all. Other incentives might include faculty awards, accumulated hours to apply to release time, or agreement to allocate such involvement as a type of prioritized flexible service work for evaluation and promotion considerations.
Several of these strategies are beneficial to building a viable, robust assessment agenda on your campus. However, it’s important to note that further clarification of major roles and responsibilities is necessary once faculty involvement in assessment begins to grow in a more meaningful direction. Some faculty will take quite nicely to assessment work, while others may simply not enjoy it. When debating and assigning duties to key agents or strategic partners, allow those who’ve appreciated their assessment obligations to assume leadership positions in the area. After all, nothing is worse than attaching expectations to someone who loathes a certain exercise — this is doubly the case when the shareholder is an academician.
Selected References for Further Reading:
Andrade, M. S. (2011). Managing change—Engaging faculty in assessment opportunities. Innovative Higher Education, 36(4), 217-233.
Grunwald, H., & Peterson, M. W. (2003). Factors that promote faculty involvement in and satisfaction with institutional and classroom student assessment. Research in Higher Education, 44(2), 173-204.
Kezar, A. (2013). Institutionalizing student outcomes assessment: The need for better research to inform practice. Innovative Higher Education, 1-18.
Kuh, G. D., Jankowski, N., Ikenberry, S. O., & Kinzie, J. L. (2014). Knowing what students know and can do: The current state of student learning outcomes assessment in US colleges and universities. Urbana, IL: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.
Schlitz, S. A., O’Connor, M., Pang, Y., Stryker, D., Markell, S., Krupp, E., … & Redfern, A. K. (2009). Developing a Culture of Assessment through a Faculty Learning Community: A Case Study. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education, 21(1), 133-147.
Wang, X., & Hurley, S. (2012). Assessment as a scholarly activity? Faculty perceptions of and willingness to engage in student learning assessment. JGE: Journal of General Education, The, 61(1), 1-15.