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ASSESSMENT: WAVE OF THE FUTURE OR DREGS OF THE PAST?

by Clyde Ebenreck, Philosophy

As the college has embarked on an energy intensive assessment process, I would like to share some of my reflections on where we have been, and where it sounds as if we are going.

During my second year at the college, under the one year-reign of President James Harvey, TQM (Total Quality Management) was the buzzword.  Workshops, retreats, and seminars were held on how this managerial wisdom would transform the college.  I was eager to hear about the magic that could be done, since I was already convinced that teaching/learning did involve some sort of wizardry that could perhaps be transmitted to others.

This management by objectives scheme seemed to be appropriate for the classroom since both the teacher and the student had certain objectives they were seeking to achieve in the compressed timeframe of a semester.  But, as is too often the case, what may have worked in the marketplace did not work in the classroom to any greater effect than any other model.  Teaching/learning did indeed involve magic, but TQM was not the wizardís wand.

Some years later, just four or five years ago now, a process of spelling out course objectives and various artifacts and rubrics in order to discover if the objectives were being achieved was implemented and then abandoned.  My suggestion is that again the magic amulet did not work, but there is still magic in teaching/learning.  I am giving in to the temptation to do a kind of relativity neologism and start talking about teachinglearning as one entity, to wit:

  • The studentís eyes which suddenly come to life as an insight or vision hits their awareness.
  • The student who returns years later and says, "I never forgot what happened in your class."
  • The student who, in essence, tells the teacher to just get out of the way.

Yes, there is magic.  But when we start disbelieving in the magic (Do I hear a clapping of hands in the distance?), it fades quicker than Tinker Bell.

I fear that the present assessment process will destroy teachinglearning rather than enhance it. Assessment effectively denies the magic of each teachinglearning encounter, just as the ribbit is not found when dissecting the frog.

Alfie Kohn has an article in the November 8 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education  (B7-9), in which he argues rather effectively that there is actually no demonstrable grade inflation at the college and university level this year, this decade or this century.  Instead, he concludes that, "the real threat to excellence isnít grade inflation at all; itís grades."

I have the sense that the real threat to future excellence here at our college is not unassessed classes, but assessment itself.  My reasons for this hunch include:

  1. A perception on the part of some of us, that the reason for assessment is that the administration (either here or at the state level) no longer trusts faculty members to be doing their job.  It does make some degree of sense for even tenured professors to have their classes periodically evaluated by a peer or a department head who would know both the content and the methodology of the teachinglearning in that faculty memberís courses.  But it does not make as much sense for those same courses to be evaluated by those who know neither the field nor the methods of that discipline.

I know that we have been told that it is not an evaluation of the faculty member but of the course itself, but just as teachinglearning is one concept, so too is the coursefaculty.  No two teachers teach the same, and if the faculty member has any degree of academic freedom, that person will have crafted a unique course syllabus.  Master syllabi can offer suggestions, but no one should teach the master syllabus.

  1. There is another perception that I believe is widely shared: the time taken up by the process is time taken away from teachinglearning.  Every teacher - even the worst of us - assesses what the students are learning every moment in the classroom and in the evaluating of tests and papers and presentations and experiments and task performances.  Adding on another layer or two (which must consume time) is not likely to add to what the teacher and department chair already know.  If they know there is a problem, then their professionalism should be trusted to deal with it.
  2. A perception that may be more specific to my discipline of philosophy: the results of the learningteaching (I know you were getting irritated with the other phrasing) are life results, not class results.  Plato urged that only those who were 40 or more study philosophy - I am willing to have people of any age study philosophy, but realize that the lessons learned may not be manifest until those students are 50.  To actually assess what has been gained by the students, one needs to look at them in a year, or ten, or thirty.  Thus, an assessment process which seeks to use a currently measurable outcome during the semester in which the student is being exposed to philosophy is bound to miss the point of the discipline.
  3. A perception picked up at various regional meetings of community college philosophers in the state: assessment is mandated, but it is foolish.  So, do only what is needed to avoid a hassle. Some of them show off their departmental assessment plan, and simultaneously wink out the message that they are proud of having crafted a smoke screen to keep the administration- politicians away from their courses.  Assessment as an act of self-protection would add nothing to the desired excellence of the college.
  4. A mandated assessment without demonstrable need for the assessment is as bad as demanding that everyone of a certain age go through a painful medical exam even if there is no symptom showing a need for the exam.  Up to this point I feel that we have been told about the mandate, but not about any need.
  5. And finally, an intellectually vibrant student body and faculty are not made more vibrant by doing busy work.  If assessment can be shown to increase the vibrancy of both student and faculty, then it has some value.  But until that is demonstrated, the process feels like busy work. And feeling that one is required to do busy work reduces any enthusiasm for doing it.

Last May, in another Chronicle of Higher Education article ("Choosing Justice Over Excellence" Stanley Katz, May 17, 2002: B7 Ė 9), John Stuart Mill was quoted as saying: the "proper business of an university [is] not to tell us from authority what we ought to believe, and make us accept the belief as a duty, but to give us information and training, and help us form our own belief in a manner worthy of intelligent beings, who seek for truth at all hazards, and demand to know all the difficulties, in order that they may be better qualified to find, or recognize, the most satisfactory mode of resolving them."

That is the vision I believe this college should have.  Assessment conflicts with that vision in as much as the assessment process seems to be authoritarian towards both faculty and students.  It also appears to aim at removing the hazards of learningteaching by the procrustean bed of "measurable outcomes."

 

The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 18, No. 2

Spring 2003