February 20th, 2009

Creating a Sustainable, Faculty-Driven Assessment Initiative


Meaningful program assessment requires faculty participation. The challenge of getting faculty involved and staying involved lies in convincing them that the benefits of educational assessment are worth any additional work it generates.

One way to start the discussion about assessment is to initially work with department chairs. To get departments on board, Oberlin College conducts assessment workshops between terms. In its first assessment workshop in 2005, department chairs met with assessment experts, who had them identify their goals and start to think about how they could best measure progress toward those goals in ways that would be directly observable.

The goal of that first workshop was for each chair to develop a single indirect measure of learning outcomes—something that asks students about their impressions of the learning experience. These indirect, subjective measures often ask questions related to writing, public speaking, quantitative skills, and critical thinking, and can include student surveys conducted at various times throughout the program.
In the next workshop during the summer, the department chairs worked on developing direct measures of learning outcomes.

“We work with them to determine a rubric for their department and to align those rubrics with their department-level goals,” says Patty deWinstanley, associate dean of Oberlin’s College of Arts and Sciences. “In that way we could build on what the department is already doing. If they’re doing exams and they want to report back with their exams as an indicator of student learning, they can. If it’s a senior project or thesis, they could do that. If it’s a portfolio that students put together, they could do that. We’ve sat down with each department and said, ‘What do you already do? What are some of the products of your students’ learning that you’re already collecting?’ And then we formalized it.”

Faculty participation in assessment is needed because faculty have content expertise and need to choose assessment techniques to match content-specific learning objectives. “Each department has a different way of doing things. That’s the real strength of this. We allow this to be very much driven by the department. First of all they are very much the experts at looking at student learning in their fields,” deWinstanley says.

In order for assessment to be useful, it must measure learning outcomes over time. This is why deWinstanley and her colleagues are working with departments to make these activities sustainable. “We want assessment to be a regular part of the department’s activities and reports that already exist, and we hopefully have gotten across that it’s not any one individual in the department that takes this on; rather, this is shared across the department,” deWinstanley says.

Ongoing workshops will give faculty the opportunity to talk about their progress and remind them that “we always have to be thinking about assessment at the department level,” deWinstanley says.

“Busy faculty have to make decisions all the time about what they can and can’t do, and unless they feel like assessment is valued by the institution, I think that that’s really a problem for sustainability. By providing feedback to the departments, we not only help them to further develop their instruments and learn more about the questions they may have, but we also show them that the institution values the work they’ve done,” deWinstanley says.

Excerpted from The Academic Leader, October 2006.