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Memo to Departments: Outcomes Assessment Really is a Good Idea (POD Essays on Teaching Excellence)

Posted by on Friday, February 3, 2012 in News.


CFT Educational Consultant Milt Cox reviews an essay by Wayne Jacobson, University of Iowa, appearing in Essays on Teaching Excellence published by the Professional and Organizational Network in Higher Education.

Jacobson claims that outcomes assessment is of key importance to departments. It provides them with the opportunity to discover and measure the impact that their educational programs are having and what their students are learning across courses and over time. In addition to generating data for accreditation and institutional reports, outcomes assessment offers an opportunity for department members to have conversations about current teaching and learning efforts and how they could be improved. The essay offers guiding principles to enable departments to engage in productive outcomes assessment.

Principle 1: Collaborative Engagement

Steps in planning a course involve determining effective learning objectives, selecting approaches to achieve these objectives, and designing ways of measuring the resulting student learning. However, for departmental outcomes assessment instructors must engage these steps as a group, collectively reflecting on and reviewing how the courses fit together in a curriculum. This engagement differs from assessment in individual courses because a curriculum is spread over a longer period of time and a broader range of learning experiences.

Principal 2: Transparency, Reason, and Evidence

Informal feedback and anecdotal reports can create confusion and doubt about the assessment process and outcomes. To avoid this, transparent approaches can involve samples of student work and results of alumni and employer surveys. Outcomes resulting from different approaches should be confirmed by triangulation.

Principal 3: Useful, Timely Information

Outcomes assessment is a means to an end, not an end in itself. It should be designed to get at information that can be immediately used to address upcoming opportunities and suggest solutions to current problems. It should not require immediate tweaking, but rather provide curriculum development directions over a span of up to five years.

Principle 4: Faculty-Based, Department-Led, Centrally Supported

The best resource for assessment activities is the collective expertise of colleagues working together, but they cannot do it all on their own. Outcomes assessment requires both department leadership and central support. Jacobson states that departmental leadership includes

  • Coordination:
    Bringing faculty members together on a regularly-scheduled basis to review assessment findings and to participate in decisions that have program-wide implications
  • Context:
    Keeping the department’s overall learning outcomes in view as well as the diverse perspectives of faculty, students, the discipline, and the institution
  • Continuity:
    Maintaining the memory of lessons learned as the program has developed over time; ensuring that ongoing efforts are systematic, thorough, and moving forward

Central support for outcomes assessment efforts should include

  • Capacity:
    Providing recognition and reward for assessment efforts, offering opportunities for faculty development, creating grants and other support for department initiatives
  • Facilitation:
    Supporting exchange of ideas and resources so that departments aren’t faced with re-inventing the wheel each time they develop or expand assessment efforts
  • Connections:
    Remaining informed of developments in other departments at the institution and across higher education plus the expectations of institutional stakeholders such as governing boards and accrediting bodies.

In conclusion, professional staff members at the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt are available to consult with departments that are designing or engaged in assessing learning outcomes.

Photo by isdky – Brian Barnett

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