Colleges and universities are finally getting more serious about how to assess learning outcomes. When I began teaching, assessment meant giving exams and doling out grades. Professors were independent authorities, standing above any other arbiter.
High, middle and elementary schools have been involved in assessment for some time now. Do you remember the Iowa exams? Now, the teaching careers of “lower” education faculty are staked on scores amassed by their minions.
Some college faculty and administrators see this new emphasis as a good thing, while some see it as an unwelcome intrusion by outsiders who know little about higher education. Possibly, these critics say, it is an attempt to replicate No Child Left Behind at the college level.
We do not do much direct assessment of learning outcomes in higher education, and that is true at Wittenberg also. The Physics department is an exception. This summer, Jeremiah Williams is involved in a grant funded effort to improve skill assessment at the course level.
Our assessment tends to be indirect. What is meant by indirect assessment? The IDEA forms administered in our classes are indirect assessment instruments. They ask students to rate their understanding of course goals instead of actually measuring those outcomes. We tout our NSSE results as proof of student engagement and rely on some studies connecting engagement to learning outomes. But again, we cannot really say that NSSE scores directly measure learning outcomes.
There are ways to measure directly some essential learning outcomes. The GRE subject exams measure endpoint assessment in fields like ECON. While an improvement over indirect assessment, they cannot really measure value added unless they are accompanied by some pre-test. The Collegiate Learning Assessment (CLA) is another direct assessment instrument, designed to assess skills not tied to particular disciplines, but rather the kinds of skills we hope to see gained in our general education curriculum.
The CLA has been in the news in connection with the book Academically Adrift. That book suggests that large numbers of college students are leaving with little or no progress on key skills we expect college students to have gained.
How should we respond to the call for assessment? We can ignore it and let our mission be shaped by others, or we can get busy and administer the CLA, the GRE or other instruments we believe measure and document our students’ outcomes. In this era of accountability our students, their parents and accreditors will demand it.