She Had A Pleasant Elevation

She’s moving out in all directions …

Like this Talking Heads song, this is how my summer has been – moving out in all directions. Though to be clear –  I am NOT taking LSD in a field next to a Yoo-hoo beverage factory in Baltimore, Maryland (thanks for this information Wikipedia), nor am I lying in any grass. I have been working with my colleagues on lots and lots of assessment projects, all simultaneously. And it’s fun and exciting and draining and cool. (And busy.)

Let me do a brief inventory:

  • Assessment of Learning in the Academic Library
  • Student Affairs Assessment
  • Academic Department Assessment Reports – 2010-2011
  • Academic Department Assessment Plans – 2011-2012
  • Preparing for rolling out Department Review- Chapter 2: Student Learning
  • Liberal Arts Core Revision (and supporting myriad assessment projects associated with the current LAC outcomes)
  • NWCCU Accreditation – Standard One
  • Hiring and welcoming our new Assessment Research Coordinator
  • Hiring and welcoming our new Service Program Coordinator
  • Teaching LRN 305
  • And, and, and … let me just say it’s been a busy summer.

And oh yeah, I almost forgot! I have been working on  my own learning in the Assessment Leadership Academy — all in context of these various projects and my day-to-day work.

I have to say that in moving in all of these directions, I am, in fact,  having a pleasant elevation. Wanna know why? Because when I am engaged in this work, I am learning. And why? Because assessment is about learning. (Not to be redundant – but have I said that before? Like HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE?)

Megan Oakleaf, in a recent article about assessing value in academic libraries, said it too in regard to why assessment in libraries is important:

Value research means hard work: hard work conducting research, hard work reflecting on results, hard work fine-tuning existing services and resources, and hard work developing new ones. However, it is certain that not engaging in the value conversation puts academic libraries in  an untenable situation. It is also certain that investigating and demonstrating library value is the right thing to do. Why? Because as librarians explore the value of library services and resources they provide, they learn. When librarians learn, they proactively deliver top-notch services and resources where they’re needed—to students completing their academic work; to faculty preparing publications, grant proposals, or tenure packages; to administrators seeking decision-making evidence. And when librarians deliver excellent services and resources, they make a difference for their users—they are valuable.

This summer has been all about learning — student learning, my learning, my colleagues’ learning, my institution’s learning — and making a difference (or at least trying to). And learning and making a difference are valuable. And *that’s* been my pleasant elevation for this summer (which has got to be way better than taking LSD in a field next to a Yoo-hoo beverage factory any old day).

(Not that I would know.)


On Tending To Weeds

I spent last week at Session 1 of the WASC Assessment Leadership Academy and came back with a notebook and brain full of ideas about assessment, teaching, learning, leadership, higher education, and my own sense of place in the landscape. I had the true pleasure of learning from 2 masters — Amy Driscoll and Mary Allen — as well as 2 amazing guest faculty — John Tagg and Peter Ewell. And of course, there were 31 other “masters” in our group as well, each of us offering our own expertise, resources, ideas, and energies to the group. I am so grateful that we get to be together, learning together, again in 6 weeks, and then again in January.  (I am equally grateful for the wiki we set up to keep us together between sessions!)

"They keep coming back" from Indexed

And of course, true to my nature, I came back with not one focused project idea, but 20+ unfocused project ideas. My list of “weeds” goes on and on, and so now the sorting process needs to happen. Fortunately, I’ve been through this phenomenon before with both my Master’s thesis and my dissertation, and I trust my brain’s process to sort, prioritize, and eventually focus. I guess I should also be grateful that there’s no shortage of projects on my to-do list.

I do have a kernel of a great idea that I’m pretty excited about: an assessment of the library on student learning, specifically information literacy. I am eager to meet with our library director and see if this is something she’s interested in as well. I’m imagining the development of some curriculum maps that include course and program outcomes — and maybe even specific assignments — as well as the development of a rubric to assess the extent to which students are demonstrating information literacy, and then linking it back to instruction they receive by / in the library. The opportunity to make students’ library-based learning visible is exciting, and I think we can showcase it here.

In the meantime, these projects and ideas keep growing in my head like weeds. And now, on this first day of summer term, I am back in the organic matter of my own garden here, tending to the seeds that we have been planting for the last several years, watering the full-grown plants that are producing the ‘fruit’ of good assessment (um, that fruit would in fact be learning!), and trying to keep the bugs and slugs away so that growth can continue to happen. (I could extend the metaphor to include the search for sun in Portland, Oregon, but that might be taking it too far.)

But I am not sure what to do about all these weeds; they keep gathering and growing, some on the verge of blooms, some crowding out others, some pushing through the hard-packed earth of my skull. Instead of picking them all and getting them out of the way,  I think I just might tend to them a bit and see if, like good dandelions, they can result in some really great wine.

Truman, Meet Higher Education. It’s Somewhere Near Fiji.

I must be learning something — or trying to at least. In the Assessment Leadership Academy, we are reading The Learning Paradigm College, by John Tagg. And since I started that book, John Tagg has been invading my brainspace. Let me demonstrate:

Yesterday, we had an Academic Leadership Team meeting at my university in which we discussed the pro’s and con’s of our “adjunct faculty model” (which, in reality, is an economic model, but that’s a whole other blog post). Today, a few emails reflecting on that meeting floated around, deepening our conversation, pointing out elephants in the room, and calling out unexamined assumptions. All very good and necessary.

Somehow, while reflecting in and on the meeting and reading the follow-up emails, I found myself channeling John Tagg. And then I chimed in to the conversation accordingly:

I left the meeting wondering what our discussion would sound like if we re-entered it through a focus on student learning and organizational learning: What are the learning outcomes for our students, and what qualities of a faculty member can support those outcomes best? What are our learning goals for ourselves — for our scholarship (in the traditional and non-traditional forms in which we engage in it), and for praxis and teaching practice? And what are the qualities of a faculty member that would help us facilitate those goals? If we put learning at the center of the conversation, how might our conversation change? How might we think, differently?

It struck me that yesterday’s meeting resulted in pro’s and con’s of our current model, and as (a colleague) points out, we also revealed some false dichotomies and assumptions about ourselves and our teaching faculty. This is because we have been talking about a faculty model, as if faculty were “delivery tools.” We have, in my opinion, not been talking about a learning model. I believe that we need to.

I’d like to challenge us to try this next: working from a learning paradigm instead of a teaching paradigm. We might find some new perspectives and challenge our historical and cultural norms and assumptions accordingly. (And coincidentally, we might learn something by doing so.)

You know that movie The Truman Show, when Truman realizes that his whole world, his whole reality, is engineered by someone else (Christof) and he realizes that it could be a different way? Here, check it out:

It’s like that. And Christof said it best:

We accept the reality of the world with which we are presented.

Tagg contended that higher education has presented us with the reality of  the instructional delivery paradigm that consists of faculty delivering courses in set periods of time, which have credits, which add up to degrees. The learning paradigm, however, not only changes the focus but changes the model entirely:

In its briefest form, the paradigm that has governed our colleges is this: A college is an institution that exists to provide instruction. Subtly but profoundly we are shifting to a new paradigm: A college is an institution that exists to produce learning. This shift changes everything. (Barr & Tagg, From teaching to learning: A new paradigm for undergraduate education, 1995, in Change magazine.)

And damn – he’s totally right!

Let’s bring in Truman to have him ask: why can’t we challenge this reality — this paradigm — and say it could be another way? As Barr and Tagg (1995) pointed out, a shift to a learning paradigm can actually liberate institutions from “a set of difficult constraints,” including budget realities.

Young Truman: I want to be an explorer, like the Great Magellan.
Teacher:  [indicating a map of the world] Oh, you’re too late! There’s nothing left to explore!

Oh, there’s plenty left to explore, Truman. In fact, let me introduce you to a new and improved Higher Education. It’s somewhere near Fiji; let’s go find it together!

Let’s Get Meta

In their book Developing Outcomes-based Assessment for Learner-centered Education, which we are reading for the Assessment Leadership Academy, Amy Driscoll and Swarup Wood share stories about their work with faculty developing their practices in teaching, learning, and assessment at CSU Monterey Bay. For one thing, they make CSUMB sound like Higher Education Utopia On Steroids. And in many ways it might be: it’s relatively new, it was designed from the ground up to be learner-centered and outcomes-based, and, well, Amy and Swarup work there (I just have a feeling, having attended a session with both of them a few years ago at a conference, that they’d be amazing to work with). Oh – and CSU Monterey Bay is in a lovely area of the world, too. So yeah . . . in a nutshell, Higher Ed Utopia On Steroids.

Monterey Bay view from CSUMB website. Pretty!

There are lots of good assessment ideas in their book and I’m taking it all in (I especially love the Faculty Learning Community model they have in place). For example, they share CSUMB’s philosophy of assessment:

Assessment is a dynamic pedagogy that enhances, extends, supports, and expands student learning.

That’s right: Assessment IS a pedagogy. Not separate from pedagogy, but IS pedagogy. And it also has an important purpose: to foster learning! How about that?!? How great is this philosophy?!?

They also share a set of questions from Huba and Freed (2000) intended as an inquiry framework for use in assessing assessment. Here they are – let’s get meta:

  1. Does assessment lead to improvement so that faculty can fulfill their responsibilities to students and to the public?
  2. Does assessment focus on using data to address questions that people in the program and at the institution really care about?
  3. Is assessment based on a conceptual relationship among teaching, curriculum, learning, and assessment at the institution?
  4. Do faculty feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for assessment?
  5. Do faculty focus on experiences leading to outcomes as well as the outcomes themselves?

I need to take these questions to our Assessment Committee — to our faculty as a whole — and use them to think about what we’re doing well and where we could make improvements in becoming a learning-centered institution. For example, an answer to #4 might be: Yes, but also a sense of burden. It’s time consuming; it’s hard; it’s a lot of work … and that’s all true. And I also know there are great rewards and it is best if it’s part of the teaching-learning process, since it IS pedagogy.

One more nugget to share is this seemingly simple question that Swarup asks at the very end of Chapter 5, about the relationship of content to learning:

Shall we teach to deliver content or use content to help students answer meaningful questions?

This is a much better question than the one I have asked of faculty in helping them think about learning and assessment: Do you teach content, or do you teach students? Because clearly the answer is both and one can greatly serve the other.

Huba, M.E. & Freed, J.E. (2000). Learner-centered assessment on college campuses. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

On Being An Adult Learner

The Assessment Leadership Academy I am participating in has begun, and I feel like a student on the first day of class again. It’s been a while since I’ve been in this position — this position of student — as it’s been a while since I’ve taken a course, and I am particularly mindful of how I am experiencing it.

Let me share a few highlights with you:

  • I anxiously checked my email awaiting the online course login information.
  • When it came, I logged in as soon as I could, downloaded and thoroughly read the syllabus, took note of the due dates and the first assignments I needed to do, and ordered the text I needed (there are 12; I already have 11 of them, though to be clear, “have” them does not mean that I have read them).
  • I submitted my first assignment (a short bio) with great caution and hesitation. It was a bio — it was about me (in 50-100 words). Why I suddenly got squeamish about submitting it, I have no idea. But there you have it.
  • I carefully took the first self-assessment survey, wondering if I was actually assessing my own “competence” in specific course outcomes accurately or not. I questioned my answer on every question — as if there were a “right” answer. There wasn’t — it was a self-assessment, for god-sake!
  • I found a binder and organized the paper course materials in it so I could keep track of things. Yes, that’s right. A binder.

An aside: The last item — the binder organization piece — reminded me of my former love of Trapper Keepers. When I was in high school I’d buy a bunch of them and get all my courses organized by colored Trapper Keeper: red for math, blue for English, yellow for history, green for chemistry, etc. Do they still even make these great school supplies? I mean, this was the most brilliant organization system around in the mid-80s. Big-time kudos to Ms. or Mr. Trapper who invented the dang thing.

Anyway, what does all of this say about me?

It says, loud and clear: I’m an adult learner, through and through. I want to be prepared, on-top of things, organized, and competent. I am ready to learn; ready to think; ready to take it all in and make it my own. And I want to fully embrace this experience. Each and every minute of it — with or without a Trapper Keeper to keep me in line.

A Tricycle Approach: Teaching, Learning, Assessment

Two thought-provoking essays about assessment for and about learning have been published in the last few weeks, and both have my nog prattling.

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.


Mac on a tricycle. See how excited he is to have all three wheels?

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.