A Few Thoughts on Assessment

Bob Willenbrink, Head of THEWritten by guest blogger Bob Willenbrink, head of theatre and dance

There has been a great deal of talk on campus about assessment and we have just concluded the first successful Showcase on Assessment here at Missouri State. The half day showcase featured presentations by a number “faculty assessors” and committees from many departments and all colleges as well as a keynote speech and consultations with assessment and retention expert, Dr. Jean Hensheid, Portland State University. At its conclusion, I am convinced that we are on the cusp of great success in the development and implementation of solid assessment plans University-wide.

Some would question (excuse me for paraphrasing a great song) assessment, saying “…what is it good for, absolutely nothin’, say it again…” while others would counter that strong assessment strategies will answer many questions about student progress, enable us to carefully review our programs to ensure that our students are fulfilling their learner outcomes and are leaving the university adequately prepared for entering their careers. Truth is, the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes.

As I have shared with many, at my previous institution I was dragged kicking and screaming to the altar of assessment and left the first discussions quite confused and a little angry. But no matter, we were told we were compelled to assess our programs and we had to begin immediately to develop comprehensive assessment plans. These plans had to be done in just a few months! This led to a crash course on vision statements, mission statements, student learning outcome (SLO) writing and rubric development. The learning curve about assessment was steep, but I must admit that, after all was said and done, I was feeling pretty smug and satisfied with the first results. We possessed a thorough plan; it was built upon a sound educational foundation and philosophy. The plan we assembled would look fairly and comprehensively at all programs within the department. Surely we were about to become great program assessors! Then we assessed.

We discovered many things in that first assessment cycle. We discovered that we did indeed have a clear mission for our programs and for the most part our programs of study were consistent with our mission. On the flip side, we also discovered that while most of our coursework described and appeared to address the SLO’s, we established that wasn’t always the case. So we made some adjustments, tweaked a few courses and adjusted some course content. All in all, even that early cycle gave us a good picture of the nature of our program and where we needed to improve. Most importantly, what I discovered was that the real value in assessment was not the standards or outcomes we assessed, but rather how we utilized that information to improve and enhance our academic and co-curricular programs. I must confess, even this modest success convinced me that assessment was a valuable thing and strong assessment plans would be a significant tool in building and augmenting our programs in the future. In short, I was a believer. Unfortunately, after that first cycle I departed that university and happily landed at Missouri State.

As we all know, the university has recently reconstituted the Assessment Council, hired a new Director of Assessment and is pursuing new strategies for developing a system of strong program assessments throughout the University. This pursuit is heightened by the development and employment of the Quality Improvement Project (QEP) for the upcoming Higher Learning Commission (HLC) review and the development and implementation of a new General Education program. Strong assessment plans are key components to both of these significant initiatives and it will be vital for all faculty members to be active and enthusiastic contributors to the construction and execution of these plans. I have heard that previous assessment initiatives did not thrive and faded from lack of interest and faculty participation. But Missouri State is much different now, and with clear direction from an eager and stable leadership team, I am convinced that in relatively short order we will all benefit from quality assessment of our programs.

At the Showcase, it was clear that many departments and colleges have already composed insightful, active plans and use the information in positive ways. Others are still developing their plans and making progress toward total implementation. What is important to remember is that all assessment plans are living organisms that must change, morph and evolve to meet the ever changing needs of our students and our disciplines. Another important aspect of assessment plans is that they promote conversation and positive working relationships among faculty members. Perhaps most significantly, the information that assessment plans will provide will be used to strengthen and improve what we do in our classes, in our laboratories, in our studios and in our performances. Frankly, I am excited about assessment at Missouri State. I think we are headed in the right direction and I look forward to learning about all of the strong and excellent programs in all colleges. As E.S. Grassian says:

“We plan. We develop. We deliver. We assess and evaluate the results of the assessment. We revise, deliver the revised material, and assess and evaluate again. Perfection is always just out of reach; but continually striving for perfection contributes to keeping both our instruction fresh and our interest in teaching piqued.”

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