May 11th, 2010

Learning Outcome Assessment: Creating a Systematic and Transparent Program

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Faculty usually hold a set of beliefs that make the whole topic of learning outcome assessment seem boring, useless, or both.

This is very unfortunate for a number of reasons. First, the most proficient practitioners of learning outcome assessment are the faculty themselves. Second, faculty members are the designers and developers of curricula, courses, and the core of higher education itself. Third, faculty members are the ones who will innovate and develop new methods of teaching and learning, and will implement any changes based on assessment results developed through the program’s assessment methods.

It’s fashionable lately to try to motivate faculty through statements like “If we don’t do assessment ourselves, someone else will do it for us.” This gets attention at times, but it misses the whole point; we do assessment already, because it is useful to us. If we do it better, it will be more useful and valuable.

Step one is to recognize what is already happening, build a structure for it, and make that structure transparent. Step two is to build on the work that already is being done and focus it into the areas of most importance to the faculty in assuring that their students know, value, and do what the faculty intend. Getting faculty and departments to realize this, and act on it, is of utmost importance. Assessment structures can be imposed, mandates can be made, and penalties for noncompliance assessed from outside the program, but this is a dead end. If program assessment is ever to be taken seriously and used effectively, it must be systematic and built into the very structure of the program or department by the faculty themselves.

How does a department chair motivate faculty to participate in the construction of a systematic and transparent program assessment structure? First, by making the point that assessments already are being conducted, but in a way that is not as useful as it could be. Second, by showing that a systematic approach to program assessment has value to the department, and not just because it helps the students, but because it helps faculty have more valuable, meaningful, and successful teaching experiences.

This second step requires departmental leadership—sustainable leadership—and the role of the chair is the largest obstacle to the endurance of useful program assessment. In many universities, the chair’s position is short lived. A motivated chair must build institutional structures within the department that will outlive her or him. These involve the following:

  • A clear message on the purpose of assessment
  • Making assessment methods simple and useful
  • Making assessment collaborative, collegial, and cooperative
  • Having an incentive structure that rewards useful assessments and the scholarship of teaching and learning
  • Making connections with alumni
  • Making connections with the community

Thinking seriously about what students should know, value, and do allows faculty members the opportunity to think about their own practices, their own work. This not only can lead to a renewed interest in their own department and its curriculum, but can help them refocus their own attention on things that really matter to them in their research and their service. Most important of all, it can reignite the passion for teaching in many by treating research on teaching and learning as valuable and meaningful for the department’s health.

Gary A. Gigliotti is associate vice president of academic affairs for teaching and assessment and director of the Center for Teaching and Advancement and Assessment Research at Rutgers University-New Brunswick.

Excerpted from The Faculty and Program-Wide Learning Outcome Assessment, February 2009, Academic Leader.