Assessment of and for Student Learning and Success: Who Cares?!
A couple of months ago I came across a Chronicle of Higher Education article titled “Does Assessment Make Colleges Better? Who Knows?” The gist of the article is that virtually nobody, even those in higher education; truly cares about an institution’s assessment in making informed decisions about quality of institutions, for example, when considering a significant choice of which college to send one’s children. As I reflected on this article, I could not stop pondering on the following questions:
- What is it about assessment that easily evokes mixed reactions among different stakeholders?
- Does good assessment (automatically) translate to better-educated students and good institutions? Alternatively, does assessing student learning over time make better institutions? Do institutions have readily available data that support this?
- Does bad assessment translate to poorly educated students and worse institutions?
- Apart from meeting accreditation requirements and Federal/State mandates, do learners, professors and/or institutions genuinely care about assessment?
- Why are assessment and assessment results rarely promoted as a branding attribute (like sports programs) of most institutions?
- Who or what drives an institution’s approach to assessment and how often are these approaches evaluated and benchmarked against those of other institutions or best practices?
What do you think of these questions? Do any of them resonate with you?
There seems to be a misalignment and a lack of balance between efforts expended on assessment of learning and assessment for learning in academia. Assessment of learning refers mainly to summative assessment while assessment for learning is about formative assessment geared toward supporting and advancing learners in their learning.
It is imperative that we strive to strike a balance between assessment of learning and assessment for learning. It is through this balance that an effective integrated assessment approach is possible—an approach that encompasses various components of assessment in a coherent manner, and which speaks to certain desired goals while factoring in opportunities and constraints prevalent in an institution.
A Checklist Assessment Mindset
Assessment approaches as currently espoused in many institutions are underpinned by what I characterize as “a checklist assessment mindset.” This type of assessment mindset is superficially ingrained on the learner, but places much emphasis on dutifully going through the motions of completing a laundry list of requirements. It is akin to checking off boxes to meet the requirements and mandates of accreditors, state, and federal agencies. In this approach, discussion most often centers on unfavorable consequences for not doing so by institution administrators or external agencies. You often hear comments like “we will be in trouble with our accreditors or the Department of Education,” but very little comments on whether serious learning is taking place and students are receiving value worth of the time and resources spend to attend college.
Most instructors have been programmed to go through an artificial exercise of describing the things they did in their programs or courses in reaction to assessment data of yesteryear. In other words, no effort is spared in ensuring that all the check boxes are marked, which when completed, yields a false sense of satisfaction and accomplishment that yes, we completed our assessment! There is no deeper reflection on the learner, the learning, and the need to close the learning loop based on various data points and different aspects of learning analytics readily available in a well thought-out integrated assessment approach.
In the checklist assessment mindset, the learner and the learning appears to come in as an afterthought. It is seldom acknowledged that teaching and course design, for that matter, are not always neutral. Instructors/professors/designers bring their biases into learning, in terms of preferred approaches, theoretical underpinnings, selected best practices, worldviews, and so on. There is need to, therefore, test and validate some of these preferences through rigorous assessment for and of learning to ensure that they promote student learning and success. Learners’ characteristics must be considered in light of the preferences and/or biases instructors bring into the learning process and spaces. As such, only a well thought-out assessment approach is able to capture the myriad variables which affect learning to determine what is working and not working to enhance learning. Institutions should strive at not treating assessment mainly as a compliance matter but as a critical component of learning.
Building Blocks of Assessment
Everything instructors do in their courses and programs are building blocks to robust assessment for and of student learning and success in any institution. Assessment should therefore be instructor-driven and given the necessary support needed—both financial and in-kind support—to ensure that robust approaches are etched in institutions and made to be part and parcel of culture. It is in the best interest of instructors to test and assess whether the methods, techniques, and assumptions deployed in courses and/or program design and delivery are working as envisaged. Assessment is critical in monitoring, testing, correcting learners, instructors, and institutions assumptions and approaches to learning.
Assessment is about continuous refinement; it is about testing and validating what is delivering and not delivering. It about building on what is working and adjusting what is not working based on data. Assessment is not easy, especially now with so many data points. We have to invest effort, materials, and finances to realize what is needed to improve student learning. Every stakeholder both within and without institutions of learning should care about assessment and constantly work to get it right and meaningful.