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.