May 3rd, 2011

Effective Assessment Includes Direct Evidence of Student Learning


Learning outcomes assessment is a critical part of a program’s success. It can affect a program’s reputation, enrollment, funding, and even its continued existence. Therefore, it’s essential to get useful assessment data without creating an overwhelming burden for busy faculty members. In an interview with Academic Leader, Lisa Shibley, assistant vice president for Institutional Assessment and Planning at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, discussed effective program-level assessment methods.

What are some characteristics of effective program-level assessment?
Shibley: You need to do something with the results. Oftentimes, data is collected and reported, but what’s being done with it? So often assessment is focused on improving students’ learning, but there’s also an opportunity to showcase what a department or program is doing as well. It could be used to help improve the learning opportunities for students. It could also be used to promote the program to incoming students.

I think it’s important that faculty work collaboratively to define learning outcomes so that they’re all on the same page. And I think that’s a great faculty development opportunity. Sometimes with assessment initiatives, just having the conversation is valuable. Assessment helps faculty see how their course is connected to the overall program. At another level, it may help faculty help students understand why they might need a particular course as part of their program.

Effective assessment needs to include direct evidence of student learning—what skills, abilities, knowledge, and attributes are they exhibiting as a result of participating in the program? Direct evidence could include embedded test questions, portfolios, or standardized tests. There can be a combination of direct and indirect evidence, which is typically measured by instruments such as surveys and exit interviews.

I think you have to be realistic in terms of resources. I think one of the things that makes an assessment program successful is being cognizant of faculty members’ other responsibilities.

How can programs coordinate their assessment efforts?
Shibley: One of the things that’s important is that there are opportunities for faculty to share information. If they’re not working together on a particular assessment initiative at the department level or they’ve divided it up depending on the research that is available, they need to share so that they’re aware of the implications of the assessment. I also think that just by having those conversations you might be able to help faculty understand that they’re doing assessment already and that all they need to do is formalize it and share it so that benefits the program as a whole.

Who should be in charge of assessment?
Shibley: The obvious answer is faculty, particularly a faculty member who has been participating in or who has expressed an interest in assessment. I think more and more departments are finding that new faculty coming in have some kind of assessment experience or they have knowledge of the scholarship of teaching and learning. So take advantage of that, but don’t burden the new faculty members with that as they go through the promotion and tenure process. You need to bring in other faculty who are tenured because when senior-level faculty support the initiative you gain respect for it.