On Assessing Student Learning, Faculty Are Not the Enemy (IHE)

November 7, 2014

Jeffrey Alan Johnson

“Why do we have such trouble telling faculty what they are going to do?” said the self-identified administrator, hastening to add that he “still thinks of himself as part of the faculty.”

“They are our employees, after all. They should be doing what we tell them to do.”

Across a vast number of models for assessment, strategic planning, and student services on display at last month’s IUPUI Assessment Institute, it was disturbingly clear that assessment professionals have identified “The Faculty” (beyond the lip service to #notallfaculty, always as a collective body) as the chief obstacle to successful implementation of campuswide assessment of student learning. Faculty are recalcitrant. They are resistant to change for the sake of being resistant to change. They don’t care about student learning, only about protecting their jobs. They don’t understand the importance of assessment. They need to be guided toward the Gospel with incentives and, if those fail, consequences.

Certainly, one can find faculty members of whom these are true; every organization has those people who do just enough to keep from getting fired. But let me, at risk of offending the choir to whom keynote speaker Ralph Wolff preached, suggest that the faculty-as-enemy trope may well be a problem of the assessment field’s own making. There is a blindness to the organizational and substantive implications of assessment, hidden behind the belief that assessment is nothing more than collecting, analyzing, and acting rationally on information about student learning and faculty effectiveness.

Assessment is not neutral. In thinking of assessment as an effort to determine whether students are learning and faculty are being effective, it is imperative that we unpack the implicit subject doing the determining. That should make clear that assessment is first and foremost a management rather than a pedagogical practice. Assessment not reported to the administration meets the requirements of neither campus assessment processes nor accreditation standards, and is thus indistinguishable from non-assessment. As a fundamental principle of governance in higher education, assessment is designed to promote what social scientist James Scott has called “legibility”: the ability of outsiders to understand and compare conditions across very different areas in order to facilitate those outsiders’ capacity to manage.

The Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities, for example, requires schools to practice “ongoing systematic collection and analysis of meaningful, assessable, and verifiable data” to demonstrate mission fulfillment. That is not simply demanding that schools make informed judgments. Data must be assessable and verifiable so that evaluators can examine the extent to which programs revise their practices using the assessment data. They can’t do that unless the data make sense to them. Administrators make the same demand on their departments through campus assessment processes. In the process a hierarchical, instrumentally rational, and externally oriented management model replaces one that has traditionally been decentralized, value rational, and peer-driven.

That’s a big shift in power. There are good (and bad) arguments to be made in favor of (and opposed to) it, and ways of managing assessment that shift that power more or less than others. Assessment professionals are naïve, however, to think that those shifts don’t happen, and fools to think that the people on the losing end of them will not notice or simply give in without objection.

At the same time, assessment also imposes substantive demands on programs through its demand that they “close the loop” and adapt their curriculums to those legible results regardless of how meaningful those results are to the programs themselves. An externally valid standard might demand significant changes to the curriculum that move the program away from its vision.

In my former department we used the ETS Major Field Test as such a standard. But while the MFT tests knowledge of political science as a whole, in political science competence is specific to subfields. Even at the undergraduate level students specialize sufficiently to be, for example, fully conversant in international relations and ignorant of political thought. The overall MFT score does not distinguish between competent specialization and broad mediocrity. One solution was to expect that students would demonstrate excellence in at least one subfield of the discipline. The curriculum would then have to require that students took nearly every course we offered in a subfield, and staffing realities in our program would inevitably make that field American politics.

About Ryan C. Fowler

Ryan is a curricular fellow at the Center for Hellenic Studies in Washington D.C. He also teaches at Franklin and Marshall College and Lancaster Theological Seminary.
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