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By coincidence I’ve had the chance within a two-day span to discuss assessment both with a student group, the President-Provost Student Advisory Committee, and with a higher-ed class being taught by one of our leading assessment staff members.

Students were intelligently concerned about how we do and use course and teacher evaluations. They wondered why we don’t pay attention to Rate-My-Professor but seemed largely satisfied with our explanation that it had little or no polling validity. They were surprised, I think, to learn how seriously we took the results of our own course evaluations. They agreed that we need to get the word out on the importance of these data and to urge students to take the exercise more seriously (perhaps becoming a bit more critical in the process). We also need to clarify to students that the statistical results are available. It was a good discussion with some sound next steps to improve the process. It will also help if, before handing out the usual forms, faculty explain to students what the exercise is all about.

In talking to a class about assessment I always begin with the obvious point — that the whole movement of trying to assess programs and learning outcomes, beyond the individual instructor, is still relatively new. Lots of faculty take it seriously now, but commitment is not uniform. The chance for program faculty collectively to discuss learning goals, achievements and preferred improvements is desirable even though it takes a fair amount of time — within the unit and on the part of evaluators. I wish we had more resources to help units follow up, and over the longer term this remains a sought-after goal.  And we are certainly still struggling to figure out how to best assess some of our key aims, such as improvements in critical thinking. Still, the process of program assessment has moved from experimental to normal, and I do think some good results have accrued.

With all this, I also want to put in a pitch for the continued importance of the assessments that are even more standard: the assignments and evaluations that occur within individual classes. Most faculty, I think, take their grading responsibilities seriously, realizing that they owe students a careful report but also that the results measure teaching performance as well. Here too, within a well-established framework, I hope we’re seeing some change away from the notion of punitive course exercises, designed to catch some fixed minority of students who must be flunked out, and toward a carefully balanced measurement of student input and teaching success that legitimately leads to a good overall grading result. Assessment, of all concerned, still starts at this level.