Sunday, November 14, 2004

Assessment in a Learning-Centred University 

Yesterday’s department meeting introduced the newest command from the powers that be. As part of the university’s decision to become a learning-centred institution, every department will have to engage in regular self-assessment, with reports made to unnamed bodies above us. The department’s current activities for the five-yearly departmental review are deemed inadequate, not because they have been examined for such inadequacy, but because the university itself has been given a blanket mission of introducing new assessment techniques.

I am a great supporter of assessment in principle, but in practice it leaves much to be desired. One very great problem is the format in which it has been introduced as a mission. For those not involved in the daily process of teaching to ask departments to demonstrate that they are fulfilling their learning objectives runs the risk of insulting faculty members by implying that they are not doing so. To date, technocratic initiatives have failed to avoid alienating faculty members in this way. A notable example is the recent mandate by the State of California to overhaul the teaching credential programme. Our department was forced to engage in a year-long project of collecting syllabi and sample assignments for every class, along with explanations of how each class contributed to the various areas of expertise which students working for the teaching credential are now expected to acquire. I cannot exaggerate enough the immense burden of wasted time and bureaucratic paperwork this placed on us, not just on our credential adviser, but on the entire department. There was apparently little thought given to the consequences of what we were being asked to do. Many faculty members felt that they were being scrutinised and second guessed. Certainly they felt a strong message that there was a lack of trust in their professional expertise.

The sheer amount of time bureaucratic exercises like this take up shows another danger of assessment. The process of gathering and processing information can leave no time (or energy to act upon it). This process also takes time away from teaching and research, the two primary means by which learning takes place within the university. It is true that self-assessment is a type of learning as well, which justifies its place in a learning-centred university. But is this type of learning important enough to be worth diverting time and resources from student learning or faculty contributions to their fields of study? I suspect that promoters of assessment would deliver a resounding, if somewhat rhetorical, no in the case of student learning and an even less convincing no in the case of faculty research. In actual fact, though, I observe signs that there is a hierarchy of interests here, and that attention and resources are being diverted away from research. In addition, there is already a built-in diversion of resources away from student learning. Cal State Northridge, has an abysmal graduation rate and a deepening financial crisis. In this climate, we cannot enforce pre-requisites which would benefit learning outcomes. Further, we are being urged to graduate students with few courses in larger class sizes. All this does not translate into a smaller teaching load for faculty, who are so overworked that they are unable to offer students the attention they deserve. Although I have seen no suggestions of how assessment can contribute to the (nominal) research mission of the university, it is argued that assessment will help faculty devise better ways to help students learn in the current climate. I agree that assessment can fulfil this function and have used it myself to this end.

However, it can also be a grave burden on faculty members, whose time is already limited by an overburdened workload. There has been some recognition of this in suggestions that we embed assessment in the coursework we assign and that we not assess everything at once. Good suggestions, but they can easily get out of hand. One thing is clear. We will not have an outside body examining the data we have collected; rather, our assessment committee will be asked to collect and analyse the data, and then file a report of some sort. If the level of assessment is enlarged too much, this will be a great burden, and it is not clear that anything will come out of it.

I should add something from my own personal experience with assessment. The data I collected revealed that I was already doing almost everything I could do to help my students reach the learning outcomes I had set for them. For the most part, the factors that prevented them from reaching those outcomes were outside my control. In my first two years at Cal State Northridge I made heroic efforts to overcome these factors and found that my efforts resulted in diminishing returns. There was also considerable collateral damage. I took time and energy away from my research efforts, which led to a degree of scholarly stagnation and a dampening of my enthusiasm in the classroom. I also took time away from my personal life, which affected my family and my health. In the end, assessment led me along a very unhappy path. It promoted activities for which resources were insufficient or unavailable and distracted me from those activities which make my professional life dynamic and successful. It proved to be navel gazing of the worst kind.

I am not arguing that we should not engage in assessment activities. I am arguing that they should not be mechanical bureaucratic exercises, that they should not be too extensive, and that the limits on their usefulness should be firmly part of the perspectives of those who promote and engage in them.

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Blessed be alwey a lewed man 

Ye, blessed be alwey a lewed man
That noght but oonly his bileve kan!

(Yea, blessed be always an ignorant man who knows nothing but his his faith!)

So says John the Carpenter in Chaucer's Miller's Tale. Or was it George Bush and the American public?

My trepidations for the future are greater than they have ever been. Timor mortis scientiae conturbat me.

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