Four Reasons Assessment Doesn’t Work and What We Can Do About It

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I admit that I’m an assessment geek, nerd, or whatever name you’d like to use. I pore over evaluations, rubrics, and test scores to see what kinds of actionable insights I can glean from them. I’ve just always assumed that it’s part of my job as a teacher to do my very best to make sure students are learning what we need them to learn.

That being said, since serving on my university’s assessment committee, and for the last two years having acted as the university director of assessment, I have heard a litany of excuses for not utilizing assessment. Some are the types of excuses that would test the patience of any professor hearing them from a student. Here are a few of my favorites:

  1. It’s the students! Assessment doesn’t work when you’re looking at the results only in terms of what the student did wrong or right. Yes, student populations change, and student characteristics differ depending on whether you are teaching first-year college students or returning adult learners. But placing all the blame on the students—saying they don’t study or are unprepared—only adds to our frustration and gives the false impression that students are the only factor in the teaching and learning equation.
  2. It’s just busywork! Yes, for most of us assessment is an essential part of accreditation and for ensuring we maintain standards for our work. However, if you look at it as only busywork, you will just fill out the paperwork, check the boxes that need to be checked, and not take a hard look at what the results are trying to tell you. An effective assessment should force you to examine what it means to be a successful teacher, where your students are now, and how you can help them get where they need to go.
  3. I was hired to teach! We were all hired to teach, and that’s probably because we are good at our chosen profession. But we choose to teach, and part of being not merely a good but an excellent teacher is continually evaluating how well you’re doing. Just as buying a car means more than filling it with gas, it’s important that we examine assessment results to see whether we need to put “new tires” on our content.
  4. I am too busy to deal with it! OK, we are all busy—we have classes to teach, students to advise, and research to conduct, and we’re probably sitting on a few different committees. It’s not an easy job, especially for beginning faculty. Whether we’re assessing the effectiveness of a single course, a program, or an entire institution, assessment can be messy, frustrating, and, at times, difficult to hear. But there’s strength in numbers, and I have yet to meet a single faculty member who is not willing to share experiences, rubrics, and advice to help a colleague get better. There’s no need to go it alone and toil in isolation. Why try to reinvent the wheel when there’s an abundance of work that has proven effective?

Assessment does work
Now that we’ve outlined the different times assessment doesn’t work, let’s discuss when it does. Assessment works when we learn to look at it as a process for improving the quality of our teaching. It works when we dialogue with colleagues, both within our discipline and across campus, and create new ideas to help students learn. Assessment works when we try something new and don’t get disheartened when it doesn’t work; instead, we reevaluate and try something else. Assessment works when something new proves effective and we gain information that moves our curriculum forward. Assessment can work if we quit making excuses as to why it’s so difficult and messy and instead look to the information to reinforce what works and discard what doesn’t.  Assessment works when we embrace the challenge of always getting better.

Vickie Kelly is the program director in the Master of Health Science at Washburn University.