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.