Award winners, Student Learning Symposium, by Lu Wang
Chris Brown and Bob Hagen accepted the university degree-level assessment award for work that they and others have done in the environmental studies program. Chris Fischer, right, accepted the Chris Haufler Core Innovation Award on behalf of the physics department. Joining them at the Student Learning Symposium on Saturday were Provost Jeff Vitter, left, and Haufler, second from right. (Photo by Lu Wang)

By Doug Ward

Chris Brown sees assessment as a way to build community.

It brings together faculty members for much-needed discussions about learning. It helps departments explain to colleagues, administrators, and accreditors the value of a degree. And it helps create a better learning environment for students as courses undergo constant evaluation and revision.

“Assessment is not a box to check off on a thing that says you’re done and now you can stop thinking about it,” said Brown, director of the environmental studies program at KU. “It’s about people who are engaged in an ongoing process of learning themselves about how to do their jobs better.”

Brown’s program received the university’s degree-level assessment award at Saturday’s Student Learning Symposium in Lawrence. He was joined by two colleagues, Bob Hagen and Paul Stock, in accepting the award, which comes with $5,000 the program can use in advancing teaching and assessment.

Brown said everyone at KU was “basically taking crash courses” in assessment, which he describes as a series of questions about student learning:

  • How do you document?
  • What do you document?
  • How do you decide what’s valuable to document and what’s not valuable to document?
  • What changes do you need to make based on the evidence you’ve gathered?

Moving from informal to formal

Instructors in all departments have been engaging in informal assessment for years, Brown said.

“It’s every time we talk to each other about one way we think we could have done things better for a particular course, or all the times we’ve looked at our curriculum and decided to make changes,” he said. “The degree-level assessment we’ve been doing has taken that to a formal level.”

Faculty members in environmental studies began focusing on that formal assessment process a few years ago when the program did a self-study as part of an external review, Brown said. That forced them to take a hard look at what students were learning and why they thought the degree was valuable.

“We’re an interdisciplinary major,” Brown said. “Our foundational course should cover all the divisions of the college – the natural sciences, the social sciences and the humanities – as it relates to environmental studies. So there were a bunch of different moments that came together and really piqued people’s interest across our faculty and really say, ‘What do we want with this degree?’”

As it created a formal assessment process, environmental studies looked first at core writing skills, largely because instructors weren’t happy with the final projects students were turning in for upper-level courses. It was clear students were struggling with collecting evidence, structuring arguments, and making those arguments clear in their written work, he said. So faculty members broke larger assignments into smaller segments and gave more feedback to students along the way as they moved toward their final projects. Doing so has led to a dramatic improvement in those projects.

It has also led to opportunities for instructors to share their successes and struggles in classes. They also freely share class material with colleagues. Brown says that openness allowed him to teach an environmental ethics course for the first time with meaningful and successful results.

“I could not have done that if I weren’t in conversations with colleagues,” Brown said. “That’s what this comes down to.”

Brown makes assessment sound easy.

“Once the formal process began, it really helped solidify that we do need to get together at specific faculty meetings as a whole group,” he said.  “When I call those faculty meetings, I don’t have to pull teeth. Everybody comes. It’s not difficult. Perhaps it’s the nature of the major. People seek out contact across these various fields because it’s an interesting and rewarding conversation. Assessment has given us one more reason to come together and talk about what we value.”

Finding colleagues to help

He urges others interested in moving assessment forward to seek out like-minded colleagues, those with whom you are already having discussions about teaching.

“It really doesn’t have to start with any greater number of people than two,” Brown said. “Start there if that’s all you have.”

Talk about goals for students and goals for your major. Determine how you know students and the major are meeting those goals. Then think about how you can gather meaningful information and use that information in ways that lead to greater success. Then carry that conversation forward with other colleagues, including those in other departments. Draw on the many workshops and discussions at CTE.

“That’s hundreds of colleagues from various fields who are eager to talk with you about what you do and to help you and others see that what we’re doing with teaching and learning is intellectual work,” Brown said.

Again, assessment loops back to the idea of building community.


The lighter side of assessment

A short film that helped lead off Saturday’s Student Learning Symposium showed that assessment isn’t always serious business.

By Doug Ward

James Burns of Boston College uses a term I hadn’t heard before: “swirling students.”

Writing in The Evolllution, Burns says swirling students are those who move in and out of college, collecting a few hours here, a few hours there as they move toward a degree. They often have full-time or part-time jobs, families, health problems or financial challenges, he says.

class scene in lecture room with oil painting filter
Photo by Doug Ward

The best way to attract – and keep – those students is through personal attention, Burns says. Reach out to them as they apply and then follow up with personal meetings with advisors and faculty members. Providing flexibility through hybrid or online courses helps, as well, although online courses can seem impersonal to some students, he says.

It’s also important to identify these students early in the admissions process and recognize that they may need more attention than some other students. Burns recommends “high-touch advising” to help these students get settled.

His recommendations make sense, not just for the so-called swirling students but for all students. One of the keys to retention is helping students find connections to people and organizations at a college or university. They have to feel they belong. That means having faculty members and advisors who are approachable and available, and willing to listen and to help students.

That’s one characteristic of a great teacher, and it’s one more reason to value great teaching.

The benefits of online communication

One of the biggest challenges of teaching online is the lack of face-to-face communication.

Online discussions often lack the spark and spontaneity of in-person discussions, instructors lack the ability to read visual cues, and many students treat online discussion boards not as discussions but as obligatory places to dump notes from their reading.

Alexandra Samuel, vice president for social media at the technology company Vision Critical, gives a nod to those drawbacks but makes a solid argument for the benefits of communicating online. Writing in Harvard Business Review, Samuel applies that argument to internal corporate communication, but most of her observations transfer easily to education. She says online communication helps solve several problems:

  • Distance. Participants in a discussion don’t have to be in the same place.
  • Time. Participants don’t have to be on the same schedule or fill their calendars with meetings. Rather, they contribute to online discussions when they can, 24 hours a day.
  • Diversity of opinion. Online communication allows workers to get answers to questions sooner than they would if they had to wait for a specific person to arrive at a specific place. This also allows for a more diverse group of people to weigh in.
  • Styles of communication. In-person meetings work well for loquacious people but not so well for those who are more reserved. By relying on only in-person meetings, Samuel writes, “you’re missing out on the perspective and talents of people who like to mull on a problem before contributing, or that of people who communicate better visually or in writing than they do out loud.” She recommends using several different forms, including PowerPoint, Google Docs, mindmapping tools, and project management tools to make discussions engaging for a wider variety of people.

Samuel doesn’t address one crucial issue in online communication: relationship-building.

Building relationships can prove challenging in an online class, especially one with an abbreviated schedule. Instructors must  build rapport with online students through video, audio, email, discussion boards, announcements, and other means of communication. They must then maintain a presence throughout the course, and make themselves available to students.

Communication of any type succeeds, though, only when everyone – whether workers or students – participates willingly and meaningfully. That’s often easier in the workplace than in education, but not always.

Briefly …

As K-12 schools develop Common Core curricula, many are forgoing textbooks in favor of free online materials, The Hechinger Report says. … A report from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco gives a big thumbs-up to college degrees, saying that college graduates earn starting salaries that are $5,000 to $6,000 higher than high school graduates, with the gap growing to $25,000 after 15 years, Bloomberg Business reports. … The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that professors at some colleges have begun producing video trailers to promote their courses to students.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.

By Doug Ward

I often roll my eyes at articles that take millennials to task for not measuring up to the standard of the day. All too often, baby boomers and those in generations before seem to wag their fingers at young people and spew out curmudgeonly laments that inevitably start with, “When I was your age …”

question on reading a chart from ETS survey
Sample questions, above and below, from the international survey of millennials’ skills

As I dug into a new report by the Educational Testing Service, though, I began to buy into the concerns it raises about the skills of American millennials when compared with those of their counterparts worldwide. (ETS creates the GRE and TOEFL tests, among others.) The new report, written by Madeline J. Goodman, Anita M. Sands, and Richard J. Coley, is called “America’s Skills Challenge: Millennials and the Future.”

Across the board, data from the study suggest that Americans rank near the bottom in literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving in technology-rich environments (things like using digital maps and calculating the price of tickets from a kiosk). This holds true for high school graduates and for those with bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

“A decade ago, the skill level of American adults was judged ‘mediocre,’” the authors write. “Now it is below even that.”

More education, fewer skills

The 82 million American millennials – those born after 1980 – have received more formal education than any previous generation, the authors write, yet their demonstration of skills in literacy and numeracy are middling at best. The U.S. is the wealthiest among 22 nations where the test was administered, but it is also “the most economically unequal.”

Given the poor performance of American millennials on these tests, the report says, we should “consider critically the value that higher education in the U.S. is contributing to the skills of our young adults,” adding: “For education to be a vehicle to future success, for it to fuel the American Dream, it has to be aligned with an economy that values the skills it imparts, and those skills must be translatable to tangible opportunities.”

One of the most interesting – and ominous – assertions the report makes is that the growing economic inequality in American society today is very likely to compound the disparity in skills. Students whose parents hold college degrees generally have greater skills in literacy and math than those whose parents have only high school diplomas. As the cost of college rises and economic inequality grows, those at the top will have great access to education and the opportunities it brings while those at the bottom will have fewer opportunities.

sample map from ETS survey“A very real danger lies in perpetuating a cycle where low skill levels, less income, and less access to quality education will beget a further entrenchment of deep inequality, with some segments of society more at risk than others,” the authors write.” This is the very opposite of what a meritocratic society purports to offer.”

For instance, scores of blacks and Hispanics were 15 to 24 percent below those of their white counterparts, depending upon the age group. As the report explains, though, whites and Asian-Americans still scored below the average for all those who took the tests internationally.

What can we do?

Tests of all kinds tend to do a much better job of measuring students’ ability to take tests than they do in measuring their ability to apply skills in a realistic setting. I’m also suspicious of “the sky is falling” reports about education. The sky has been falling since at least the 1970s. As I said earlier, though, I’ve had trouble finding fault with this study.

Perhaps the main weakness in the study is its lack of solutions. It makes a strong case that the skills of American millennials rank below those of their international counterparts. It doesn’t explain why or how to fix the problem, though. Here are some obvious ones:

De-emphasize standardized testing. Instead of fixating on standardized testing, give teachers the freedom to help students learn in meaningful ways. Many are doing that already with blended learning, project-based learning, team-based learning, and other methods. Until schools adopt a teacher evaluation system that uses standardized tests as a small part of a much larger portfolio, teachers will focus on test scores.

Make skills matter. Today’s academic culture promotes the idea of education as a product rather than a process of learning. Reversing that will require more meaningful demonstrations of skills over grades and a diploma. And until universities stop basing admissions decisions on standardized test scores, the ability to take those tests will matter far more than than more meaningful skills.

Emphasize active learning. As Maryellen Weimer writes in Faculty Focus: “We can’t seem to disavow ourselves of the notion that teachers should do most of the talking.” Active learning helps students gain crucial skills. Wide-scale of adoption of active learning is unlikely occur, though, until instructors are rewarded for taking risks.

Value teaching. Higher education still lacks a meaningful reward system for high-quality teaching. Until we change that, teaching will play a diminished role that results in diminished skills for students.

The problem is far more complex than any of those solutions, but those areas can at least provide an entry into a much-needed and, as the ETS report emphasizes, increasingly urgent problem.

Briefly …

Jonathan Rees, a professor of history at Colorado State, Pueblo, says that the university tenure system “is on life support” but deserves to be saved because it “is the best form of quality control that higher education has.” … The UK is struggling to recruit and retain teachers, investment in education has dropped, and student skills lag, The Guardian reports, saying, “Education has never mattered more, so why won’t the UK invest in it properly?” … Educause has joined other organizations in expressing concern about the discriminatory aspects of Indiana’s Religious Freedom Information Act. In an email message, the organization’s president and CEO, Diana Oblinger, said Educause had been looking for alternative sites to Indianapolis for its October conference and had written a letter to Indiana’s governor. … Three white papers issued by the U.S. Senate “show that lawmakers are considering significant changes in the ways colleges are evaluated and held accountable for student outcomes,” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports.


Doug Ward is an associate professor of journalism and the associate director of  the Center for Teaching Excellence. You can follow him on Twitter @kuediting.