Two thought-provoking essays about assessment for and about learning have been published in the last few weeks, and both have my nog prattling.
- The first is this, by Theodore Wagenaar, from The Chronicle of Higher Education: Why I Like Assessment: Let Me Count The Ways
- The second is this, by Dianna Chapman Walsh, from Inside Higher Ed: Toward a Science of Learning
Wagenaar’s point might be best summed up in this final statement:
Let’s not do assessment just because it is mandated. Let’s not do it to make accreditation agencies happy or because everyone else is doing it. Let’s do it to improve learning.
Wagenaar makes the strong point that assessment done well and appropriately focused can improve student learning, faculty learning, courses, programs, and institutions, which is more important (and motivating) than doing assessment for accountability or comparative purposes. (To which some of us might just say, “Um, yeah!”)
Walsh’s point might be summed up with this scenario:
If groups of faculty were to think deeply and systematically over a number of years about student learning and student success, they could create for their own institutions and the wider field a more robust evidence-based culture of learning, a “science of improvement,” as groups of medical leaders are advancing for their profession.
An effort like this at one institution would require the gradual creation of highly-intentional learning (not teaching) cultures with explicit cycles of improvement in place throughout the college or university, starting with academic departments and working up from there.
In other words, assessment could better serve students, teachers, and institutions if it became more about how students (and the rest of us) learn and not only what they learn. This becomes even more relevant, Walsh contends, in the information age where the “what” is easily accessible, and the “why” and “how” are critical skills for our capacity for ongoing learning.
I have always believed that the best assessment work is situated in genuine inquiry about learning and teaching — in, as Walsh might call it, curiosity. A burning question or set of questions — perhaps about the what and the how — is formed and re-formed; ways to address or answer that question are identified; and, as typically occurs and as I would hope, more questions emerge from the process. It’s iterative. It’s dynamic. It’s transformative.
Or it can be.
Peter Ewell, in his 2009 NILOA white paper Assessment, Accountability, and Improvement: Revisiting the Tension posed the dichotomy between assessment for accountability and for improvement this way: Assessment for improvement (which could mean learning) is formative, internally focused, and engaging. On the other hand, assessment for accountability is summative (resulting in judgment), externally focused, and compliance-oriented. Ewell identified some strategies for institutions to effectively manage the tension between the two, to almost reconcile the two purposes and find ways to make both work together.
Sadly, I fear assessment has become associated and often incorrectly conflated with accountability and accreditation, as was the case at the NWCCU workshop I attended last week during which one presenter kept using the words — and their meanings — interchangeably. For faculty, it has become about workload (at least for faculty at my institution) — one. more. thing. to. do. I am still left with a sinking sense that even though there are many folks thinking about assessment as and for learning (which, frankly, is truly not that radical if you “get” it), there are still many more thinking that it’s an add-on, a must-do, instead of something that’s truly valued — the necessary and exciting 3rd wheel of the teaching-learning-assessment tricycle.
Thankfully, I am not alone in wrestling with these questions and concerns, and in trying to figure out ways to help my colleagues learn about their students’ learning — the how and the what (and maybe even the why!). This year I am honored to be invited to participate in the WASC Assessment Leadership Academy. The Academy’s learning goals, pedagogy, and faculty (including Ewell) have me buzzing in my seat — I can’t wait to get started.
I suspect I will use PrattleNog as a learning journal along the way — a place to process ideas, to share insights, to untangle conundrums, and to learn how to make that tricycle ride smoothly, meaningfully, and enjoyably. I invite you to come along on my journey and to contribute your ideas as well.