Sunday, October 07, 2007

What I Want from Assessment

I've been thinking a lot about assessment lately, and it's not fun. I get the feeling there's been a sort of bass ackwards approach.

Here's what I want from assessment. (Let's think at the departmental level for a moment, because I'm really not ready to take on the whole university.)

I want a short list of things we're doing well. Hey, this part of the program really helps students understand stuff! The classes students take for this or that requirement? They find those invaluable. Students coming from the preparatory classes show an understanding of some central concepts in upper level courses.

Then I want a short list of things we need to work on. Senior level writing isn't tackling real questions or using resources effectively. This set of classes isn't preparing students well for their upper level work.

The next step would be for people to try to figure out the "why" of the good stuff and the bad. What is it that makes X really successful? What specific weaknesses are we seeing in student preparation for upper level work?

Then we could brainstorm about how to do better, using, where possible, models from what we do well to do other things better.

My questions about assessment have to do with how we get useful information. We really have two sources: faculty and students.

My department does student interviews, and not surprisingly, they sometimes tell us useful information.

But instead of talking to faculty, my department has one person read senior level projects and a portfolio. The portfolios are generally put together at the last minute. And the one person may or may not be a really good reader for all the different sub-fields we have within our English major. (I'm not being mean when I say that, I hope, but realistic; I'm a pretty good reader of work about literature and texts; my science background may make me an adequate reader of work about scientific and technical stuff; but I'm totally unqualified to judge student creative writing, high school education writing, or linguistics.

So, how to get feedback from faculty without imposing onerous additional work? We could, of course, look at grading as a sort of assessment, perhaps? That hasn't been a well-accepted way to do assessment, and it's fraught with potential complications.

Okay, who out there has a really effective method of departmental assessment (not necessarily in English) and is willing to share some ideas? (Feel free to email if you don't want to leave a message.)


  1. The first question you need to settle is whether or not you want to measure increase in abilities or end results?

    If you want to measure increase, then I suspect that you could do both with a portfolio, but that protfolio would need to include work from the beginning of the first class to the end of the last one. The problem is one of determining value added to the student's abilities... so looking at increase in ability tells you that they learned those skills somewhere in the course of their education... not necessarily from your department's courses, but someplace in there :).

    If you want to look at end results, then looking at a senior portfolio works well. I'd guess that if one person can evaluate them all, a team could evaluate parts pretty quickly, no?

    Maybe y'all could even do the portfolio electronically in Blackboard? Or, use Blackboard to caputre work done along the way?

  2. Oops... I left out some basic analysis...

    The question for the increase in abilities is whether or not the student was a good writer when they came to you? If they are decent when they come and decent when they are done, then the increase is 0. If they are terrible when they come and decent when they finish, then the increase is significant.

  3. Inside,

    I want to thank you; you're question about what we're measuring really clarified some things in my mind. We have serious problems measuring inputs and comparing them to outputs. People just aren't widgets.