Sustaining Assessment Efforts

Requirements from accreditors and the Higher Education Opportunities Act (HEOA) have made assessment more important than ever. The key to doing it well is adopting sustainable assessment practices, says Linda Suskie, author of Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide.

“Assessment is not a fad that is going to be going away. Every accreditor expects not only that you push to meet the commission’s standards or the accreditor’s standards when your institution comes under review, but that assessment becomes part of the ongoing fabric of the institution. If you only work on assessment when your institution comes up for review, you’re constantly reinventing the machine. If you wait [five, six, seven, or eight years], no one will be able to find what you did before. The [lead] person will have retired, the files will have vanished, and you’ll pretty much need to start over again. But if you keep things sustainable, it’s actually much easier to get through your next accreditation review,” Suskie says.

If your institution has had some experience with assessment, it’s a good idea to ask questions such as the following to determine the current status and future of your assessment efforts:

  • Is assessment an ongoing priority? Why or why not?
  • Where do you want to be with assessment five or 10 years from now?
  • In what ways are things going well?
  • In what ways are things lagging?
  • What is the institutional community doing to foster an ongoing culture of assessment?

Join Linda Suskie and Virginia “Ginny” Johnson Anderson for a two-day workshop titled Using Grading Strategies to Understand and Improve Student Learning, Oct. 12-13 in Cambridge, Mass. Learn More »

Suskie recommends simplicity as the best approach to make an assessment program sustainable. “The more complex you make an assessment process, the more time it takes, and people get burned out. People won’t have time to work on their day jobs. You’ll want to do all you can to minimize the burden of assessment. Look for processes on your campus that can sort of do double duty. For instance, if you have a cycle of academic program review, synchronize those expectations with your assessment expectations so faculty aren’t preparing two different reports for two different ends. Being flexible is really important as is continually reviewing what you’re doing and asking, ‘Is this really helping us?’ If it’s not helping, don’t keep doing it.”

Institutional culture also plays an important role in assessment, Suskie says. “You need to understand why there’s not a pervasive culture and take appropriate steps. For example, at some institutions I’ve worked with, the problem is that a lot of faculty still don’t really understand what assessment is or why it’s useful or how to do it. And so professional development is the major obstacle. Sometimes there’s an issue with an institutional leader. A key leader hasn’t bought into this personally. The institutional leaders set the priorities, climate, and tone. And so if the institutional leader doesn’t think this is very important, then it’s hard to get people on board. Sometimes it’s a matter of time. We have schools today that have faced horrific budget cuts. Everybody is trying to do more than they ever with fewer resources.”

The HEOA requires that institutions document student achievement. Suskie offers the following advice on meeting this requirement:

  • Course assessment should demonstrate that your students meet your learning outcomes.
  • Make sure that learning outcomes are of appropriate rigor. “This is something that external agencies and constituents are interested in,” Suskie says. “If you’re teaching in a bachelor’s-level program, are the learning goals truly college-level goals? If it’s a graduate program, are they really graduate-level outcomes?”
  • Ensure that students succeed in the pursuit of their own goals. “We want students to graduate, but you can’t focus solely on retention and graduation rates. You still need to make sure the students are learning what they’re supposed to learn and that it’s of appropriate rigor,” Suskie says.

Excerpted from Academic Leader, 27.6 (2011): 8.