In a fast-paced, technologically-driven world, we desire connections and shared understanding. Yet, those of us who work in assessment often times feel disconnected and alone. We strive to be part of teaching and learning; to be embedded in program and department structures; to capture learning in all the places it might happen; and to address the needs of external stakeholders while protecting the interests of those within institutions. All of these are worthwhile tasks but our colleagues see few of them as meaningful. Sometimes we are considered part of the faculty, but other times as part of the administration, or part of neither. Finding a place to exist within colleges and universities can be just as difficult as helping our institutions uncover connected, student-centered data to help us improve. Our institutions are siloed and at times disjointed. So how can we, as assessment professionals, help make connections to support student learning?
One place we can be useful is in considering the sources of collective evidence we have about our students and where we might find additional points of connection. For instance, NILOA was working with an institution on assessment processes and on the way into the assessment committee meeting someone from the career services office stopped me. They wanted to know if they could join the meeting. They had submitted all of their reports, had aligned learning outcomes for students with the larger institutional goals, and so in the eyes of the assessment committee on this campus had achieved everything that was needed of them. Yet, they had meaningful data they wanted to share.
Students who come to the career services office have the option to participate in mock interviews. Now it may have been a while since you participated in your last mock interview, so as a refresher some of the questions asked to students are for them to provide examples: Can you provide an example of a time when you did X? When have you in the past undertaken Y? In other words, career services staff had evidence on where students said they learned something and were trying to get to the assessment committee table with that information– they had data that could inform curricular decisions and help explore learning experiences through the eyes of students, but they had no mechanism to include it as part of a conversation on student learning.
Of course we brought career services into the assessment committee meeting and spent our time together mapping out various possible sources of evidence and points of connection, but for assessment professionals moving around campuses all across the US, what are the lessons from this story for building connections?
One major take away aligns well with the message of the 2015 NILOA book, Using Evidence of Student Learning to Improve Higher Education, that when assessment is undertaken for reporting or compliance purposes it is not focused on students and their learning. If data collected for purposes of assessment are about completing a report, then we limit who is part of possible conversations about the students we have and their needs. In this instance, a focus on reporting created limited space for conversations beyond the submitting of reports. Such a compliance driven approach adds to a feeling of assessment as disconnected from teaching and learning as well as from improving student learning. As outlined in a recent NILOA policy statement in principles for assessment (2016), if we focus on improvement, accreditation and other reporting needs will take care of themselves.
Another take away is what counts as evidence of student learning widens if we view assessment as about our students as well as improving their learning. Assessment isn’t something we do to our students; it is something we do with them. If we don’t have student voices at the table in a variety of forms, we are limiting our ability to communication curricular coherence as well as heighten educational experiences for our students. Operating with a limited conception of what counts as evidence blocks points of entry for different conversations on how best to meet our students needs. Coupled with limited views of evidence, a lack of focus on students makes our conceptions of possible partners equally limited. Focusing on learning, in all the places it can happen, as our students experience it, builds connections across campus on how students move through and experience the various parts of our institutions.
As professionals who care deeply about student learning, it is part of our job to foster connections – in the form of conversations, broader views of evidence, or even in possible partnerships in support of students. One of our roles is to help people that are caught in the business of getting assessment off of their list of things to do to see the various points of connection that a focus on student learning can bring to our institutions. The majority of assessment related criticisms I hear on campuses is in a lack of understanding of the value and purpose for engaging with assessment in the first place. Faculty will resist if the approach is one of reporting – the value of critically examining how we foster or hinder student learning will be lost. Assessment professionals are uniquely poised to make meaningful connections to support student learning, in all the forms it takes, in all the places it happens. And it’s past time that we leveraged that position.
By: Dr. Natasha Jankowski, Associate Director, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA)
Want to hear more from Natasha? She’s a featured speaker at our 2016 Assessment & Collaboration Conference. Click here to read more about our Conference!
Kuh, G. D., Ikenberry, S. O., Jankowski, N., Cain, T. R., Ewell, P. T., Hutchings, P., & Kinzie, J. (2015). Using evidence of student learning to improve higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. (2016, May). Higher education quality: Why documenting learning matters. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, Author.