By Doug Ward

Two vastly different views of assessment whipsawed many of us over the past few days.

The first, a positive and hopeful view, pulsed through a half-day of sessions at KU’s annual Student Learning Symposium on Friday. The message there was that assessment provides an opportunity to understand student learning. Through curiosity and discovery, it yields valuable information and helps improve classes and curricula.

The second view came in the form of what a colleague accurately described as a “screed” in The New York Times. It argued that assessment turns hapless faculty members into tools of administrators and accreditors who seek vapid data on meaningless “learning outcomes” to justify an educational business model.

As I said, it was hard not to feel whipsawed. So let’s look a bit deeper into those two views and try to figure out what’s going on.

Clearly, the term “assessment” has taken on a lot of baggage over the last two decades. Molly Worthen, the North Carolina professor who wrote the Times op-ed article, highlights nearly every piece of that baggage: It is little more than a blunt bureaucratic instrument imposed from outside and upon high. It creates phony data. It lacks nuance. It fails to capture the important aspects of education. It is too expensive. It burdens overtaxed instructors. It generates little useful information. It blames instructors for things they have no control over. It is a political, not an educational, tool. It glosses over institutional problems.

Dawn Shew works on a poster during a session at the Student Learning Symposium. With her are, from left, Ben Wolfe, Steve Werninger and Kim Glover.

“Without thoughtful reconsideration, learning assessment will continue to devour a lot of money for meager results,” Worthen writes. “The movement’s focus on quantifying classroom experience makes it easy to shift blame for student failure wholly onto universities, ignoring deeper socio-economic reasons that cause many students to struggle with college-level work. Worse, when the effort to reduce learning to a list of job-ready skills goes too far, it misses the point of a university education.”

So if assessment is such a burden, why bother? Yes, there are political reasons, but assessment seems a reasonable request. If we profess to educate students, shouldn’t we be able to provide evidence of that? After all, we demand that our students provide evidence to back up arguments. We demand that our colleagues provide evidence in their research. So why should teaching and learning be any different?

I’m not saying that the assessment process is perfect. It certainly takes time and money to gather, analyze and present meaningful evidence, especially at the department, school or university level. At the learning symposium, an instructor pointed out that department-level assessment had essentially become an unfunded mandate, and indeed, if imposed from outside, assessment can seem like an albatross. And yet, it is hardly the evil beast that Worthen imagines.

Yes, in some cases assessment is required, and requirements make academics, who are used to considerable autonomy, chafe. But assessment is something we should do for ourselves, as I’ve written before. Think of it as a compass. Through constant monitoring, it provides valuable information about the direction and effectiveness of our classes and curricula. It allows us to make adjustments large and small that lead to better assignments and better learning for our students. It allows us to create a map of our curricula so that we know where individual classes move students on a journey toward a degree. In short, it helps us keep education relevant and ensures that our degrees mean something.

New data about assessment

That view lacks universal acceptance, but it is gaining ground. Figures released at the learning symposium by Josh Potter, the university’s documenting learning specialist, show that 73 percent of degree programs now report assessment data to the university, up from 59 percent in 2014. More importantly, more than half of those programs have discussed curriculum changes based on the assessment data they have gathered. In other words, those programs learned something important from assessment that encouraged them to take action.

That’s one of the most important aspects of assessment. It’s not just data we send into the ether. It’s data that can lead to valuable discussion and valuable understanding. It’s data that helps us make meaningful revisions.

The data that Potter released pointed to challenges, as well. Less than a third of those involved in program assessment say that their colleagues understand the purpose of assessment, that their department recognizes their work in assessment, or that they see a clear connection between assessment and student learning. Part of the problem, I think, is that many instructors want an easy-to-apply, one-size-fits-all approach. There simply is no single perfect method of assessment, as Potter makes clear in the many conversations he has with faculty members and departments. Another problem is that many people see it as a high-stakes game of gotcha, which it isn’t, or shouldn’t be.

“Assessment isn’t a treasure hunt for deficiencies in your department,” Potter said Friday.

Rather, assessment should start with questions from instructors and should include data that helps instructors see their courses in a broader way. Grades often obscure the nuances of learning and understanding. Assessment can make those nuances clearer. For instance, categories in a rubric add up to a grade for an individual student, but aggregate scores for each of those categories allow us to see where a broad swath of students need work or where we need to improve our instruction, structure assignments better, or revisit topics in a class.

Assessment as a constant process

That’s just one example. Individually, we subconsciously assess our classes day by day and week by week. We look at students’ faces for signs of comprehension. We judge the content of their questions and the sophistication of their arguments. We ask ourselves whether an especially quiet day in class means that students understand course material well or don’t understand at all.

The goal then should be to take the many meaningful observations we make and evidence we gather in our classes and connect them with similar work by our colleagues. By doing that on a department level, we gain a better understanding of curricula. By doing it on a university level, we gain a better understanding of degrees.

I’m not saying that any of this is easy. Someone has to aggregate data from the courses in a curriculum, and someone – actually, many someones – has to analyze that data and share results with colleagues. Universities need to provide the time and resources to make that happen, and they need to reward those who take it on. Assessment can’t live forever as an unfunded mandate. Despite the challenges that assessment brings, though, it needs to be an important part of what we do in higher education. Let me go back to Werther’s op-ed piece, which despite its screed-like tone contained nuggets of sanity. For instance:

“Producing thoughtful, talented graduates is not a matter of focusing on market-ready skills. It’s about giving students an opportunity that most of them will never have again in their lives: the chance for serious exploration of complicated intellectual problems, the gift of time in an institution where curiosity and discovery are the source of meaning.”

I agree wholeheartedly, and I think most of my colleagues would, too. A college education doesn’t happen magically, though. It requires courses to give it shape and curricula to give it meaning. And just as we want our students to embrace curiosity and discovery to guide their journey of intellectual exploration, so must we, their instructors, use curiosity and discovery to guide the constant development and redevelopment of our courses. That isn’t about “quantifying classroom experience,” as Werther argues. It’s about better understanding who we are and where we’re going.


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

By Doug Ward

Student motivation is one of the most vexing challenges that instructors face. Students can’t learn if they aren’t engaged, and serious classroom material often fails to pique the interest of a generation that has grown up with the constant stimulation of smartphones, social media and video on demand.

Some instructors argue that motivation should be up to students, who are paying to come to college, after all. Most certainly, instructors can’t make students learn. Students have to cultivate that desire on their own. Instructors can take many steps to stoke that desire to learn, though, by drawing students into subject matter and into learning in general.

student sleeping
Photo by Cassandra Hamer, Unsplash

In a pedagogy class I’m teaching this semester, students and I worked through some of the steps we can take to motivate students. This is hardly a comprehensive list, but it touches on concrete steps that any instructor can take to draw students into class material and into learning.

Find links. Helping students make connections among seemingly unrelated topics deepens their thinking and expands their ability to learn. By tying their interests (say, music) to more challenging subject matter (the workings of the brain, for instance, or American history), we can motivate students to further their exploration and broaden their learning. As John Bransford, Ann Brown and Rodney Cocking write in How People Learn, helping students understand the usefulness of a subject can improve learning, as can making sure material is neither too difficult nor too easy and providing opportunities to share with others.

Vary class time. Approaching class in the same way every time lulls students into a routine that can lead to their tuning out or shutting down. Put yourself in students’ shoes: They may have three or four classes in a single day. That alone makes concentration a challenge. Things like breaking a 75-minute class into three or four small topics, playing a short video or audio clip at some point, or even having students stand up for a minute or two can break a routine and refocus attention.

Give students choices. We all need some sense of control over what we do and how we do something. Giving students choices on project topics, readings or quiz questions gives them at least some sense of control and ownership.

Use hands-on activities. Evidence is clear that active learning, in which students engage in discussions, work on problems, or take on questions in groups, is a far better means of instruction than lecture. All instructors need time to explain things to students, but the real learning begins when students engage with material in authentic ways.

Move around the room. Moving about the classroom or encouraging students to move about and talk with classmates can help maintain students’ attention. This also helps instructors get to know students better.

Encourage students. A few words of encouragement can go a long way in keeping students engaged. Remind students that learning takes time and that their peers struggle, as well. Don’t resort to false praise, but point out good elements in students’ work and help them build on those elements.

Make individual connections. Show your humanity and help students understand who you are as a person. That doesn’t mean befriending students, but learning their names, remembering faces, and talking to students about their interests and aspirations helps personalize the learning process and helps draw students into that process.

Use humor. Instructors don’t have to be stand-up comedians, but displaying a sense of humor makes them more relatable, diminishes anxiety and sends a message that learning can be fun.

Use games. The gamification of learning has grown considerably since the turn of the century, but games that help students learn have been part of learning for as long as there have been games. So using a game strategy in a class doesn’t require great technical know-how. For instance, I have created “Jeopardy” games in PowerPoint to help students learn grammar, and crossword puzzles to help them practice research skills. Those strategies require preparation, but I’ve found them very effective.

There are many other approaches to engaging students. Some require prep time and trial and error from instructors, but many others require little more than an open mind. We’d love to hear the strategies that work best for you.


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

By Doug Ward

The University of Kansas has made many gains in its recruitment of minority students, who now make up 20.6 percent of the student body. By at least one measure, though, the university still has considerable work to do.

According to an analysis by The Hechinger Report, there is a substantial disparity in the number of Latino students who enroll at KU compared with the number who graduate from state high schools. Hechinger looked at enrollment rates for Latino and black students at public flagship universities in each state. KU had the 15th largest gap in Latino students.

Here’s what that means: About 16 percent of Kansas high school graduates in the spring of 2015 were Latino. That fall, 8 percent of KU’s freshman class was Latino, a figure that rose to 8.7 percent by Fall 2017.

The university fared better in a comparison of black enrollment, ranking 31st among the states (a lower ranking was better). About 7 percent of high school graduates in the spring of 2015 were black, while blacks made up 4.3 percent of the university’s freshman class that fall. (That fell to 3.9 percent among freshmen who started in Fall 2017.)

The highest disparities between the number of black high school graduates and blacks enrolling in flagship universities were primarily in the South, Hechinger said, with Mississippi showing the largest gap. Black students made up more than 50 percent of Mississippi high school graduates in the spring of 2015 but only about 10 percent of the freshman class at the University of Mississippi that year.

Among Latino students, the largest disparities were in the west: California, Texas, Nevada and Colorado. For instance, Latinos made up more than 50 percent of high school graduates but only about 12 percent of the freshman class at the University of California, Berkeley.

This graph from The Hechinger Report shows the percentage of high school graduates who were Latino and the percentage of Latinos among the freshman class at state flagship universities. http://hechingerreport.org/disparities-state-flagships/

An Amazon move worth watching

Inside Higher Ed speculates that Amazon may be preparing for a move into higher education. That’s because the company has hired the Stanford researcher Candace Thill, who has taken a leave of absence from the university to become Amazon’s director of learning science and engineering. Amazon and Thill had little to say beyond that.

Thill was a founding director of the Open Learning Initiative at Carnegie Mellon before moving to Stanford. She has helped create online learning materials based on findings from learning science, arguing that such materials can tailor feedback to individual needs, thus speeding up learning and leading to better scaling of classes.

The Open Learning Initiative is a competency-based system, meaning students work at their own pace, moving into new material only after demonstrating their understanding of previous material. The online system provides data to instructors and course designers, helping them improve course design and make better use of class time.

Using online learning to scale classes and reduce costs has been a dream of administrators and educational technology companies for years. Results have been mixed at best, with tech companies proclaiming grand breakthroughs even as instructors find that high-quality online teaching often takes more time than in-person teaching.

Higher education still sees digital technology as an important means of innovation and transformation, Jim Hundrieser, associate managing principal at AGB Institutional Strategies, said last month at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. Colleges are struggling to find a sustainable business model, he said, and that could lead to a hard fall, much as publishing, textiles, music, steel, trucking, telecommunications and other industries have taken.

Hundrieser predicted that the number of online courses would continue to grow, especially because of their ability to reach students in remote areas, make learning more convenient, and allow for collaboration across time and space.

He’s right, although universities can’t simply toss out lackluster materials online and expect students to respond enthusiastically. Good online teaching requires a rethinking of pedagogy, course structure, student interaction, and learning itself. Universities still have some time to improve and expand their online offerings, but that time is drawing short as competition increases. If Amazon puts its enormous resources and brainpower behind educational technology and online learning, they had better be ready.

Colorado’s fee experiment

Course fees add hundreds or even thousands of dollars to the cost of a college degree. They are calculated separately from tuition, so they can hit hard when students’ bills come due each semester.

Starting this fall, the University of Colorado will eliminate most of those fees. Students will still pay fees for such things as the university bus system, recreation center and health center, but they will no longer pay course fees that range from $1 a credit hour to $1,255 a semester. That will save students $8.4 million a year, the university said.

The university is also spending $1 million on a pilot program that will provide open online textbooks to students at a fraction of the cost of publisher-created books.

The university system’s chancellor, Phil DeStefano, said in a university address that CU hoped to increase graduation rates by reducing educational costs.

Both the elimination of course fees and the investment in open educational resources are excellent moves. Of course, the university will have to absorb the costs, essentially cutting its income by $8.4 million a year. This is at a university system that ranks near the bottom nationally in state funding.

So how can it do that? The university cited rising enrollment and retention rates. CU expects 40,000 applicants (up from 37,000 in 2017) for this fall’s freshman class of 6,500. In contrast, KU has about 15,000 applicants each year. It accepts more than 90 percent of those students, but only about 4,000 eventually enroll.

More students are also transferring to CU, the Daily Camera of Boulder reports, and the university has increased its freshman retention rate to 87.5 percent, from 84 percent a few years ago. Those two things alone account for a substantial increase in revenue. Growth almost always makes budgeting easier.

CU also charges nearly $28,000 a year in tuition for in-state students and $52,000 a year for out-of-state students. In contrast, in-state residents pay $19,600 a year at KU; those from outside the state pay about $25,500.

It doesn’t hurt that the Denver to Boulder corridor is one of the country’s fastest-growing technology and biotechnology hubs, bringing employers and research dollars to the area. And then there are the mountains and the, uh-hum, weed.

For every Colorado, though, there is an Illinois, which lost more than 19,000 students to other states in 2016, The Chronicle of Higher Education reports. The University of Illinois system has frozen tuition to try to keep more students in the state, but the number has risen for five consecutive years.


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

By Doug Ward

The criticism of liberal education often carries a vicious sting. For instance, listen to Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor:

“Universities ought to have skin in the game. When a student shows up, they ought to say, ‘Hey, that psych major deal, that philosophy major thing, that’s great. It’s important to have liberal arts … but realize, you’re going to be working at Chick-fil-A.’”

Examples of posters created during the workshop.

Or Gov. Matthew Bevin of Kentucky as he describes his budget priorities for higher education:

“There will be more incentives to electrical engineers than to French literature majors. All the people in the world that want to study French literature can do so. They are just not going to be subsidized by the taxpayer like engineers.”

Those sorts of disparaging comments certainly demonstrate an ignorance of higher education, but they also reflect the use of higher education as a political foil as the cost of college – and student debt – rises. Those simplistic characterizations have power. They stick in people’s minds and play into stereotypes of academia as an ivory tower separate from society at large and out of touch with the vast majority of Americans. They also reflect a growing emphasis on college as a job factory rather than a place to help citizens learn to think more deeply and more critically, and to expand their understanding of a complex and ever-changing world.

Higher education has done a poor job of pushing back against those criticisms, as I wrote earlier this week. Faculty members and administrators are eager to do better, though, as I found last week in a workshop I led at the annual meeting of the Association of American College and Universities in Washington. I gave participants a handout in which I had categorized common criticisms of liberal education and provided examples like the ones above. After a brief discussion, I asked them to identify an audience and create their own messages to address one or more of the criticisms. The results were excellent, showing a steely resolve to reclaim the reputation of higher education.

Categorizing criticisms

I generally see six types of criticisms of liberal education. Most come from outside the academy, but some come from inside. There are overlapping aspects among all of them, and no doubt there are others. (For instance, one workshop participant pointed out the complaint that the liberal arts focuses heavily on the ideas of long-dead white men.) These are the common ones that I’ve identified, though, and that I shared in the workshop:

  • College costs too much to waste on “impractical” subjects
  • The study of the liberal arts has become an anachronism
  • Liberal education is out of touch with the “real world”
  • Liberal education isn’t keeping up with a changing world
  • Liberal education has lost its meaning
  • Identity consciousness has tainted liberal education

I asked workshop participants to work in pairs or groups, choose one or more of those criticisms, and create both a soundbite and more substantial messages that highlight the strengths of liberal education. Some rejected the idea of soundbites. That’s understandable. Matching soundbite to soundbite can easily devolve into the equivalent of a playground brawl rather than a meaningful conversation. Nonetheless, I think it is important that we distill the importance of liberal education into key elements to use when talking with students, parents, donors, community members, politicians, and even colleagues.

Here are examples of how workshop participants rose to that challenge:

  • Change is a constant. Liberal education provides the means to create and navigate that change.
  • Liberal education is a pedagogy and an ethos, not a set of disciplines.
  • Finding a path and a voice in the world.
  • Your life is better when we think better together.
  • Get a career, get a purpose, get a life, get a college education.
  • Build a team that knows how to think.
  • Liberal arts will get your promotion.
  • Pivot for your next opportunity.
  • Invest in the long run.
  • We teach essential skills for living fully and freely, everything you need for citizenship and prosperity, self-fulfillment and self-determination.

Two groups focused specifically on Republican donors, drawing on the language of business to make a connection:

  • Liberal education builds workplace skills: adaptability, flexibility, communication skills, evaluation and analytical skills, interpersonal skills in diverse populations. It also instills ethics and fosters curiosity.
  • The liberal arts yields effective communication skills in multiple modes, which is core to successful messaging, interaction, negotiation, innovation, collaboration, creative problem-solving, sales and marketing, global perspective, diverse audiences and cultures.

As I said, there are dangers in trying to compress the complexities of liberal education into soundbites or even more substantial talking points. We will never do it justice. By thinking in those terms, though, we can better identify the components of higher education we want to emphasize and better prepare ourselves for conversations with a broad range of constituencies.

So let’s keep talking.


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