Three Assessing Days in the O.C.

by Debra Ballard, Chair of Liberal Arts and Sciences

Spending three days in Irvine with 140 other academics at a WASC workshop on assessment is not usually my idea of fun. The titles of the workshops did nothing to lead me to believe otherwise—“New Tools for Teams and Institutions: Rubrics for Evaluating the Effectiveness of Assessment Processes,” “Developing and Applying Rubrics,” “An Outcomes-based Assessment Model for General Education,” etc. However, I am publically confessing that I actually had a good (and productive) time.

To most academics, assessment is a dirty word, often connoted with taxes and evaluation. (When LA county reassesses my property, I know I will be poorer for it.) In academe, it is unfortunately associated with outside evaluators coming into the classroom and trying to quantify what we do. “Three cardinal rules for assessment: ‘Nobody wants to be evaluated, nobody wants to be evaluated, and finally, nobody wants to be evaluated.’” Since I have gone to several WASC conferences and workshops, I was already familiar with the significant accreditation changes they had made since 2001, and because I sadly pick up jargon easily, I knew my summative from formative, holistic from analytic, whether I was triangulating or truly authentic. (Ah, but could I summatively, holistically, and authentically triangulate was the true question.)

So nothing startling new was introduced at this workshop, but it did give me a chance to get away from the “tyranny of the urgent” of my work day and genuinely reflect on why we should bother to assess. When I am asked to do something that affects the classroom, I determine whether I think it is meaningful or not. If it is not, I usually will superficially and minimally comply (ever the student); if it makes good sense, I will delve into deeper applications. At this workshop the way they used assessment pedagogically, it simply meant to gather information or data on student learning that might help us improve the way we teach so that our students can learn better. I cannot think of anyone I have talked to in my years at Otis who did not think this was not one of the primary things we should be doing (OK, I can think of one or two). One of the presenters, Amy Driscoll, argued that “assessment is a dynamic pedagogy that extends, expands, enhances, and strengthens learning.” In an objective and non-judgmental way, assessment looks at the work students are producing and whether it aligns with the student learning outcomes the faculty or department has written for that course (by the end of the semester, if you successfully complete my course you should be able to . . .). If the work does, then the faculty can feel fairly confident that the course is accomplishing its intended objectives. If the work does not, then the faculty (or department) can take an internal, collegial look at how adjustments may be made to the course to improve its teaching effectiveness and the quality of student learning. Evaluation, on the other hand, is external, having experts come in to determine if the assessment has educational value (program review, guest critics, juries, accreditators, etc.)

Having a learning centered culture that is reflectively evolving, consistent, promoting a dialogue among faculty—not a bad way to spend three days in the O.C.