By Doug Ward

At a meeting of the CTE faculty ambassadors last week, Felix Meschke brought up a challenge almost every instructor faces.

Meschke, an assistant professor of finance, explained that he had invited industry professionals to visit his class last semester and was struck by how engaged students were. They asked good questions, soaked up advice from the professionals, and displayed an affinity for sharing ideas with speakers from outside the university.

The interaction was marvelous to watch, Meschke asked, but how could he assess it? He could ask a question on an exam, he said, but that didn’t seem right. The content of the discussions wasn’t as important as the discussions themselves and the opportunities those discussions brought to students.

In a sense, Meschke had answered his own question: His observations were a form of assessment. I suggested that he log those observations so he could provide documentation if he needed it. No, that wouldn’t provide a numerical assessment, but it would provide the kind of assessment he needed to make decisions on whether to do something similar in the future.

Paint pots and letter blocks

All too often we think of assessment as something we do for someone else: for administrators, for accreditors, for legislators. Assessment is really something we need to do for ourselves, though. Thinking of it that way led to an epiphany for me a few years ago. Like so many educators, I approached assessment with a sense of dread. It was one more thing I didn’t have time for.

When I started thinking of assessment as something that helped me, though, it didn’t seem nearly so onerous. I want to know how students are doing in my classes so I can adapt and help them learn better. I want to know whether to invite back guest speakers. I want to know whether to repeat an assignment or project. I want to know what students report about their own learning. All of those things are natural parts of the teaching process.

That sort of thinking also helped me to realize that assessment doesn’t have to be quantitative. Assessments like quiz and exam grades can indeed point to strengths and weaknesses. If a large majority of students fails an exam, we have to ask why. Was there a problem in the way students learned a particular concept? A flaw in the wording of the exam? A lack of studying by students?

I rarely give exams, though. Rather, I use things like projects, journals and participation.

I use rubrics to grade the projects and journals, but the numbers don’t tell me nearly as much as the substance of the work. Only through a qualitative assessment do I get a sense of what students gained, what they didn’t gain, and what I need to rethink in future semesters.

In the class Meschke described, students applied their learning through active participation. Trying to put a numerical value on that would in some ways cheapen the engagement the students showed and the opportunities they gained in interacting with professionals. Observing those interactions provided excellent feedback to Meschke, though, and by writing a brief summary of his those observations, he could provide documentation for others.

The message was clear: Do it again next semester.

And when it comes to assessment, the message is clear, as well: Do it for yourself.

Additional resources

Portfolio Assessment: An Alternative to Traditional Performance Evaluation Methods in the Area Studies Programs, by Mariya Omelicheva

Assessment Resources for departments and programs at KU

Combining Live Performance and Traditional Assessments to Document Learning, by the School of Pharmacy

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.

Participants in the Best Practices Institute work at the Spahr Engineering Classroom.
Participants in the Best Practices Institute work on a backward design exercise at the Spahr Engineering Classroom.

By Doug Ward

I’m always surprised at the common themes that emerge when faculty members talk about teaching.

Goals and challenges transcend disciplinary boundaries, allowing for robust discussions about learning; class design and preparation; assessment; the struggles of students, and other areas of teaching.

In discussions Tuesday at CTE’s Best Practices Institute, faculty members from a dozen disciplines shared aspirations and strategies for improving their classes. Among the speakers was Meagan Patterson, associate professor of psychology, who explained the key elements of backward design and then asked participants to write down goals they hoped to achieve in their classes.

My table included instructors from pharmacy, philosophy, journalism, and health, sports and exercise science. The overlap among the group was remarkable. As I wrote the goals on a whiteboard, nearly everyone in the group nodded in agreement. They, too, had essentially the same goals. Here’s a distilled list:

  • Learn basic course concepts (as in science or philosophy)
  • Learn basic definitions and moral principles and apply those to specific situations
  • Demonstrate a big picture view of a subject
  • Apply knowledge to real world problems
  • Demonstrate good persuasive writing and an ability to refute opposing positions
  • Make connections to other disciplines and ideas
  • Demonstrate an ability to synthesize and explain discrete specialty topics learned in a course.

Identification of goals is only the first step of creating or remaking a class. The bigger challenge comes when a faculty members starts to envision ways for students to learn material and to demonstrate their learning.

That’s part of what makes teaching so enjoyable, though, no matter the discipline.

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



By Doug Ward

A session from an education conference I listened in on last week reminded me of the parallels between teaching and editing.

That might seem strange, but bear with me.

I used to commute on Amtrak between Philadelphia and New York City, where I worked at The New York Times. One afternoon, I sat next to a chatty woman who wanted to know all about my job as an editor. As the train sped through central New Jersey, I explained how editors scrutinize the work of others, raising questions, fixing errors, working out the kinks in articles, pushing reporters to provide better context and better phrasing, writing headlines, and completing innumerable other tasks that lead to the publication of a newspaper.

As the train pulled into Penn Station, she thanked me and said, “I’ll watch for your byline.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that she wouldn’t find one. Editors work behind the scenes. They don’t get bylines.

That’s what I started to think about during the remote session from the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning. Those of us who teach know the myriad components that go into our jobs. Most people don’t realize that, though. They equate teaching with standing in front of a room just as they equate journalism with writing articles that get bylines.

Of course, ISSOTL, as the organization is known, has worked for the last decade to not only open up the teaching process, but to promote the importance of a scholarly approach to reflective teaching in higher education. Dan Bernstein, the director of CTE, has been at the forefront of using teaching portfolios to do that.

As participants at the conference made clear, though, we still have a long way to go. At research universities, especially, scholarly reflection on teaching has yet to achieve a meaningful place in the promotion and tenure process. Some professors see teaching as a necessary evil they must endure so they can concentrate on their research. Many faculty members who do value teaching find it difficult to open their work to scrutiny. Without a doubt, teaching is a far more personal activity than research, and the setbacks and failures feel far more personal.

Christina Hendricks, a senior instructor in philosophy at the University of British Columbia, raised that point in her session at ISSOTL. “Sometimes people don’t want to open up their teaching to discussion or peer evaluation,” she said. “It’s as if it’s OK to open up your research to peer review but not your teaching.”

She had been keeping a journal to reflect on teaching and learning, she said, and at one point thought, ” ‘Why not do it in a way that other people can see?’ ” The result was a blog called You’re the Teacher, in which she reflects on her teaching of undergraduates, and writes about issues related to the scholarship of teaching and learning, among other things.

We’re hoping to do similar things with Bloom’s Sixth. We see enormous value in discussing our successes and failures in the classroom, sharing ideas about teaching and learning, raising the profile of high-quality teaching in higher education, and approaching teaching in the same reflective, meaningful way we do scholarship.

Another ISSOTL speaker, whose name was lost in the remote connection last week, offered a useful challenge, saying, “We don’t talk enough about the exciting things we do. We need to turn the narrative of teaching into a narrative of growth.”

Without a doubt, we need to do a better job of explaining what we do and of encouraging colleagues to join us in a journey of scholarly reflection and a deeper understanding of what helps our students learn.

As I discovered in trying to explain editing, though, true understanding will require far more than a single conversation.

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