Tag Archives: University of Massachusetts Amherst

Reforming Higher Ed #4: Assess Students Learning

“I assign grades. Isn’t that enough?” That was my attitude toward “outcomes assessment” in the 1980s, and it is a sentiment frequently expressed today. So far as I could tell then, the push for outcomes assessment amounted to a boondoggle to provide administrators and accreditation experts with additional employment. After all, who likes to have their expertise and performance called into question? But after becoming a dean, I quickly changed my mind.

Demand for Accountability

Every new professor who teaches introductory courses to first-year students soon learns that most students come to college woefully unprepared. Their numeracy, communications, and critical thinking skills are atrocious. Some studies indicate that as many as 80% of entering students need developmental (remedial) instruction in order to survive academically. Clearly, secondary schools are failing to prepare their graduates for college. But further, studies such as Academically Adrift indicate that too many students don’t improve much during their college years. Business leaders complain of having to devote too many resources to educating entry-level employees in basic communications and other skills. Politicians and government officials have begun to take note. Federal and state agencies have begun to exert significant pressure on regional accrediting bodies to insist on assessing student learning.

Although the push for learning assessment most often comes from sources external to a college or university, I soon learned as a dean that student learning is hampered by factors other than lack of preparation or student laziness (although there is plenty of the latter!). Many students work long hours at non-academic jobs to make ends meet. Many suffer from physical, emotional, or learning disabilities that hamper progress. And as the median age of undergraduates continues to increase, many find themselves caught in a tangled web of domestic and employment responsibilities. Finally, the nature and uneven quality of instruction can inhibit learning.

The Kind of Assessment Needed

Academic support services and counseling can often help students improve their learning, but most assessment initiatives focus on the quality of academic programs and the methods of instruction. Let’s face it: all too many college faculty teach as they were taught. In the most fortunate cases, they encountered superb teachers who held their attention and encouraged them to become independent thinkers. In the less fortunate instances, poor instructors passed along some really bad habits, thereby ensuring inferior teaching for subsequent generations. Assessment of the effectiveness of different teaching methods and the organization of academic programs can help remedy the situation.

The first and most important step is for individual faculty and academic departments or programs to develop clear educational goals for students. Such goals do not need to be stated in quantitative terms, but they should be accompanied by statements about how faculty can discern whether students have achieved them.

Many faculty members simply do not think in these terms: they typically speak of “covering” specified material in class, presuming that some sort of learning will occur simply through a process of exposure to course content. Identifying goals and objectives represents a new approach for them, and academic administrators would  be wise to recognize a need for faculty development in such matters. (Some of the best work in this area is now available through the Center for Teaching Advancement and Assessment Research at Rutgers University and at the Office of Academic Planning and Assessment at the University of Massachusetts – Amherst.)

Just as it is important to recognize and to implement the sort of assessment of student learning that can lead to more effective teaching and program improvement, it is also important to avoid the kind of assessment that much of society seeks to impose. Critics of the assessment or accountability movement (see Gaye Tuckman, Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University, University of Chicago Press, 2009) are correct in pointing out nefarious motives of many inside and outside higher education who want to reduce education to training for the labor market and who want to implement draconian cuts in education budgets. Academic assessment, done correctly, does not lead to “teaching to the test” or simply teaching a set of skills. It can and should be used, however, to improve learning and to restore confidence of the wider society in education as worthy of support. Without it, reforming education will fail both educationally and with regard to renewal of public trust.