Friday, February 18, 2005

Good News on Assessment

Over the past three years or so, the most nettlesome and oppressive bit of bureaucratic nonsense imposed on the faculty has been “outcomes assessment” – the requirement that each of us that taught a core course had to collect (or invent) data specific to our course in order to prove that students had achieved some defined educational “outcomes.” Just pointing to the fact that they take tests and write papers and do projects and we grade all of those wouldn’t do. Apparently, that didn’t create enough bureaucratic busywork.

This has been nettlesome because of the amount of work involved, and oppressive because of the realization that Marquette would do something so dumb.

All of this was supposedly done at the behest of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which has been demanding “assessment” from Marquette. But when the North Central Association came to evaluate the University, they were unhappy with the assessment they found.

In response to their report, Dr. Peggy Bloom, vice provost for undergraduate programs and teaching, said:

Uniformly, Marquette faculty and staff care about student learning . . . . Now we must refine our efforts with students by assessing student learning and by continuously using the assessment results to improve our teaching and academic services. By tapping both internal and external expertise, I am most confident that faculty and staff will develop assessment methods that are truly beneficial and ready to implement for the next academic year.
Oh my! What horrors might that stilted and bureaucratic language hide?

As it turns out, the news is very good. If one just phones Dr. Bloom, one will get a detailed and precise explanation of what all this means. From now on, data will be collected at a more aggregated level – for majors and schools and programs and perhaps for all Marquette graduates.

The bottom line: “course based assessment” is dead.

Bloom demurs at this formulation, pointing out that we faculty do give tests and grade papers and that we are thus doing “assessment.” Yes, we are. We always have. It’s a necessary part of the educational process.

The problem became obvious when Bloom and Prof. Nancy Snow sat down and went through the data that course based assessment had produced, and tried to find some common metric that would allow aggregation and produce an overall measure of what a Marquette education had achieved. There was none. The data were useless.

And the North Central Association, when they saw it, concluded pretty much the same thing.

Bloom says the attempt was “well-meaning” and not the result of anybody being stupid, but that the “sense of pressure” from the North Central and the fact that “not enough people really understood learning assessment” created this fiasco.

That’s a generous – frankly overgenerous – judgment. At any rate Bloom now has to “undo the damage” the first attempt created.

At the moment, there is a “University Assessment Team” that includes Bloom, Arts & Sciences Dean Michael McKinney, Rev. Greg Konz from the Business School, Joyce Wolburg from Advertising and Public Relations and Mark McCarthy of Student Development. We all know the joke about horses and camels and committees, but this one seems, at least, to have been pointed in the right direction.

Does this change mean that silly bureaucratic nonsense continues, just dealt with by administrators rather than faculty? If so, that’s an improvement, since administrators have pretty much volunteered to deal with silly bureaucratic nonsense.

But Bloom argues that some good can come of this. For example, there are instruments like the National Survey of Student Engagement (NSSE) that produce comparable data across institutions. This particular instrument happens to show that Marquette fares very well on many dimensions, but is a bit below average in student-faculty contact. Maybe that’s useful data. Maybe that needs to be addressed. This actually begins to look like social science.

In its misbegotten adventure in “outcomes assessment,” Marquette’s administration has squandered a lot of time, and effort, and faculty respect, and faculty morale. It will take some time to recoup these losses.

But at the moment things are, for a change, moving in the right direction.

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