September 16th, 2009

Designing Effective Assessments: Q&A with Trudy Banta

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In their new book, Designing Effective Assessment: Principles and Profiles of Good Practice, Trudy Banta, Elizabeth Jones, and Karen Black provide assessment profiles from a wide variety of institutions and units.

In advance of her online seminar titled Principles and Profiles of Good Practice in Assessment. Dr. Banta answered questions about the book and some of the topics she will discuss next week’s seminar.

Q: In doing the research for your book, what surprised you? Are there things that you came across that you hadn’t before?

Banta: One-hundred forty-six assessment examples were sent to us, and we used all of those in one way or another in the book. I think it’s a pretty fair sample of what’s going on in higher education assessment. Yet most of the programs that we looked at had only been underway for two, three, or four years. When we asked what the long-term impact of doing assessment and using the findings to improve programs had been, in only six percent of the cases were the authors able to say that student learning had been improved.

The rest said things about improving processes, such as better teaching methods, better advising approaches, better faculty development programs, or about putting more resources into a program. None of those things is the real outcome that we seek–the improvement of student learning.

Q: What roles should academic leaders play in assessment? What does it mean to be a leader of assessment?

Banta: The first thing for an academic administrator to do is to make it plain that they value data and are not willing to accept anecdotes and opinions only as support for an idea. When faculty approach you with a proposal, ask them to show that there is a need for this, just as if it were a research problem. When you are considering some new research, you want to review related literature and find where the approach you propose fits in the context of work underway or already completed. It could be that somebody has already done it, and it’s not so important to replicate it.

So as a leader, you ask, “What evidence should we collect to show that things will be better if we carry out your proposal? Will students learn more, or will they be more satisfied if we do this?” Always ask for data and help faculty see that assessment is important in the work they do. We always want to be checking, assessing, and evaluating to see if we’re accomplishing our goals. If our data say we are not accomplishing our goals, then what are we going to change?

It’s amazing that sometimes even just in planning to do assessment you discover things that make you want to change something. Let’s say that we know that we want to develop students’ values and ethics, so we ask everyone in the department to indicate whether they teach values and ethics. Is it a strong component of what they teach, do they teach it at all, or is it somewhere in the middle? Lo and behold, we find that although we say values and ethics are important, there’s only one course where they are even touched on. Right away faculty can say, “We need to correct that. We either need a new course, or we need three courses that are going to emphasize values and ethics. We definitely need to do more.” This is something that you can say needs to be changed without ever gathering any data from students.