January 18th, 2013

The Assessment Movement: Revisiting Faculty Resistance


“We ought to be up to the task of figuring out what it is that our students know by the end of four years at college that they did not know at the beginning.” That’s how Stanley Katz begins a well-written essay that explores the assessment movement in higher education.

Early on he observes, “A great deal of ink has been spilled in recent years by a small number of professors and a much larger number of educational administrators arguing for assessment and pleading for greater faculty support of institutional assessment efforts.” Shortly after, he admits that faculty have been an impediment to the adoption of institutional assessment measures. Why? Because faculty fear the worst. They imagine (and with some justification, based on US Department of Education efforts in the previous administration) the generation of cross-institutional data that could be used for comparison shopping, thereby promoting even more unhealthy educational consumerism. After all, it was former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings who regularly pointed out that Americans could get more information when they bought a used car than when they selected an educational institution.

Katz admits that these fears of externally imposed assessment have some legitimacy, but he thinks they are a worst-case scenario. “Faculty members should be capable of contemplating more benign, educationally helpful uses for sophisticated measurement of student learning.” Later in the essay, Katz makes a strong case for formative assessment—using the “evaluation of learning outcomes to improve teaching and learning on an ongoing, continuous basis.” Faculty should want to know whether students are learning what they are being taught, and the end-of-course ratings provide little feedback relevant to this fundamental question. Moreover, Katz wonders, “Should we not worry whether students can relate what they learn in one course to other courses, and to the multiple other learning experiences of their undergraduate years?”

But faculty resistance is not all that has slowed the progress of assessment. It’s hard to create reliable measures of learning outcomes. And once created, those instruments must be purchased. Do instruments, even well-developed ones such as the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) or the Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) effectively measure student learning? It’s an unanswered question because the higher education community (including faculty) is not in agreement about which aspects of learning should be assessed. Student learning is the goal, but learning what and learning how? Katz believes that good assessment depends on faculty having specified learning benchmarks, and he points out that in many fields faculty don’t have clear notions of precise learning outcomes. Finally, should assessment be the same across the diversity of institutional types? Every institution shares the learning goal, but learning at a research 1 university is not necessarily the same learning as in a professional program offered by a community college.

Still Katz doesn’t let faculty off the hook. He says that faculty attitudes about assessment must change if “we are to take seriously the emerging conception of institutional responsibility.” Mostly faculty see assessment as an individual matter between teacher and student. Teachers assess student learning via grades, which they assign carefully and fairly. Maybe the overall impact of a departmental program or major might be assessed in a capstone course, but faculty don’t really see that they have a larger assessment responsibility. It’s a responsibility Katz describes this way: “Those of us who want to take ownership of the evaluation of undergraduate education must devote considerably more time, effort and ingenuity to the assessment of student learning over the life course of undergraduate education than we have been doing.”

Reference: Katz, S. N. (2010). Beyond crude measurement and consumerism. Academe, 96 (5). Available online at www.aaup.org.

Reprinted from The Assessment Movement: Revisiting Faculty Resistance, The Teaching Professor, 25.7 (2011): 5.

  • Prof Lou

    Assessment is one of those things that begin with good intentions and encounter reality. I would love to have a better idea of what my students learn and how better to encourage them. Unfortunately, the notion of assessment data being used for unhealthy comparisons seems to be the reality, though many faculty in my discipline tend to think at the lower, more immediate intramural level. With the rise of a powerful and entrenched class of university administrators with enormous, bloated, and expensive staffs, I see assessment as a way for these bureaucrats to bludgeon the faculty with a righteous zeal because “facts” gathered during assessment, so they say, support their objectives and justify their methods. In a meeting just yesterday, our department chair proposed tailoring our automated end-of-course surveys with questions to enhance our assessment process. Opposition to this proposal sounded like a “Miranda warning”: anything we survey becomes readily available first to the upper administration, who will use it against us. When information control becomes a weapon, assessment becomes a casualty. The faculty also sees assessment as yet another case of administrative staff pushing their workload down onto the faculty. The Research Office, the Registrar, Risk Management, even the Disability Services Office, and a host of other “offices” expect the faculty to do their bidding, enforced by few carrots and many big sticks. Assessment becomes less a way to improve our effectiveness and more a way to fill columns on a spreadsheet in an office in the administration building where students never go. The Office of Assessment (mind you, such an office indeed exists here and with considerable staff and power) is just one more powerful, but out-of-touch, master, few of whom have encountered a student in a learning environment. Considering such distrust, condescension, and administrative sloth, it is a wonder that much assessment gets done at all.

  • Namrata Bajaj

    As a matter of fact assessment of learning process of students has become assessment of the assessor self by the administrators. There are subjects where the learning outcomes can not be measured on absolute parameters. Even when there are two evaluators for the same written assignment or oral assignment, the results are different. So objectivity can be questioned here by the administrators. No comparisons can be made for the different ratings by the two different evaluators. Every one has their own justification and support for evaluating the performance of the learner. If the intention of the administrators is to have absolute marking system in subjects like humanity, better adopt that method to evaluate which will sure be subjective.

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  • Janice Bordeaux

    A. Prof Lou and Mr. Bajaj have a point; assessment of learning is often based subjective judgments by experts, even when faculty are applying decent analytic rubrics they wrote themselves. However, for many campuses the real issue is actually two issues; 1) how the results are interpreted, 2) what the actions faculty and administration take based on that interpretation. When administrators use results to provide resources for instructors to improve teaching, and when instructors use results to reflect on areas that need improvement, then assessment using reasonable tools makes sense. The problem Prof Lou and Mr. Bajaj are highlighting is not the tool, but the dialogue between instructors and administration. Faculty and administration might ask themselves, how constructive are our conversations about teaching in the context of the current economic picture? Are we doing the best we can for our university community, for society?

  • Ken Long

    Why should we communicate our expectations to students clearly in a rubric that forces us to be transparent about our expert judgment? we should let them try to figure out what is in our head, and the ones that do should be rewarded for this display of good survival instincts; That will prepare them well fro an arbitrary and capricious world and thereby reinforce the status quo.

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