My department has been deep in the throes of discussing assessment at regularly-scheduled department for some weeks now. As a historian, I used to contend that assessment is evil. As this recent post from RYS puts it so well:
After we developed the learning outcomes, we were told that our grades did not measure whether or not the students had achieved the outcomes. So then we all had to go to special training to learn how to evaluate our students’ outcome-based learning on a grid that lists each student, each learning outcome, and the activity we used to determine whether the student met the outcome. We not-so-jokingly called this The Matrix training.
We were told that we had to do all this because otherwise we would lose our accreditation. We redid every single syllabus in our college in less than a month and then created The Matrix in a couple of weeks. The result is a steaming pile of busy work at the end of each semester to satisfy those who believe that more paperwork somehow equates with quality.
I still think there’s something to this, but if somebody is going to make you assess whether your students are learning anything you might as well try to do it in the least evil way possible. I think David Scobey of Bates College, writing at Inside Higher Ed (via AHA Today) may have something here:
What, then, would a robust assessment practice look like? It would embody the qualities that typify humanities learning itself. It would be iterative: gathering and evaluating portfolios of material from the whole arc of the student’s career. It would be exploratory and integrative: asking students to include in those portfolios materials in which they are not only learning about the humanities in their course of study, but also using it in their civic, ethical, vocational, and personal development.
It would be autobiographical: requiring students to narrate and thematize that development, to frame their portfolios with their own, small versions of Obama’s memoir. And it would be reflective: calling on them at threshold-moments to plan and take stock, to evaluate their successes and failures, and (equally important) to make explicit what they count as success and failure in their education. This last point is crucial: humanities assessment (like humanities learning) is intrinsically dialogical and open-ended. Indeed the sine qua non of a successful humanities education may be precisely that it equips students to discuss and contest the question, “Has my education been a success?” with their teachers and their peers.
While the whole autobiographical Obama thing seems pretty goofy, I think what he means is simply that students should be able to describe the process by which they reached they’re conclusions. Who can be against that?
Granted, you may think that only someone teaching at a college as small as Bates could come up with such a scheme, but Scobey mentions online versions of this already up and running at bigger schools like Portland State. The whole discussion reminds me of the last set of articles I read on re-writing the history curriculum to emphasize skills rather than facts. Stick with factual knowledge as a student learning outcome and there’s no way you can avoid those stupid multiple-choice tests.
As Scobey recognizes, this is not the kind of assessment that makes edu-crats happy:
I am mindful that the model I am sketching is bound to give the assessment reformers heartburn. Portfolios framed (like the pages of the Talmud) by autobiographies, reflection statements, and contestatory dialogue; student work assembled in narratives of meaning-making, rather than being measured as evidence of mastery — this is surely not what the Spellings Commission meant when it called on academics to take assessment seriously. For the reformers want an efficient, transparent, portable metric of effective teaching and learning: a tool that can quantify the value-added of a college education, of skills learned and knowledge deployed, in comparative rankings.
So if someone is going to make you do assessment anyway you might as well do it in a way that suits you and your discipline. At least with this way you’ll have a leg to stand on when you can’t avoid it any longer.