David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Outcomes Assessment In The Dark

May 3, 2018

Tomorrow is SMC's annual Outcomes Assessment Day (O.A.D., as I informally call it). It actually used to be a couple of days, but we, almost illogically, for reasons not important here, reduced it to one day -- or most accurately half a day.

Outcomes Assessment is the bread and butter of education, especially higher education.  Assessment, whether of programs or courses, is the process by which faculty attempt to justify the things that cost so much to students (at least in the public eye): their courses, their degrees, their college experience.  It can be an extremely icky exercise, rooted in the bone-crushing language of educational research: artifacts, indirect measures, direct measures, stakeholders, matrixes, metrics, rubrics, formative assessment, qualitative assessment, summative assessment, embedded evidence, inter-rater reliability, normalizing.

Institutions of higher learning are expected to do assessment regularly, justifying decisions made in curriculum, as one example, by the data that came out of a previous assessment.  Some assessment, especially at larger universities, gets produced through a rotation to ensure that programs or courses are assessed more fully, but not as regularly. It is a nice idea until you realize that in a rapidly changing world, with increasingly different sets of students going through your college, your recommendations from assessment may be routinely irrelevant.

I hate sounding so snarky about the assessment process, especially the day before I convene the faculty to discuss. I hesitate whether to post this tonight where some will see this and go into tomorrow's meeting perhaps even more jaded or exhausted about this process. One of the great questions about assessment is when is the best time to do it. Most of us do it at the end of a Spring/Winter semester, seeing that as the natural end of an academic year.  That, in and of itself, is probably antiquated and irrelevant, at a time when frankly the best way to get students through college is to blow up the summer-is-optional component of a mythologized educational path.  More importantly, faculty (and administrators) are just naturally wiped out in early May, so this kind of deep thinking is difficult to dredge up a day before Commencement.  On the other hand, doing it in August before everyone comes back means little significant change can occur for the Fall semester.

I suppose part of my frustrations is that outcomes assessment seems like a lot of sound and fury about nothing, especially when the public sound and fury about higher education rarely focuses on whether we can prove our students are learning.

Look at the headlines.  Take today's Chronicle of Higher Ed: there are links to 9 different stories or op-ed pieces before there is anything about learning.  If one glances at the front "page" of higher education's leading publication, one learns that a) the University of Tennessee President, Beverly Davenport, has been let go in a very ugly, political mess; b) the Koch Foundation has dubious influences at George Mason University; c) University of Texas at Austin is being accused of suggesting masculinity is a mental disorder; d) the University of Illinois at Chicago is being challenged for the handling of a complaint about a researcher; e) American University students are suing a neo-Nazi website; f) a protestor at North Carolina, Chapel Hill, doused a monument in blood and red ink; g) black professors face ugly truths in academia; h) a former academic is working at Buzzfeed; and i) good administrators must be good stewards of finances.

Here's your final exam question, kiddos: how relevant is your classroom experience to the national headlines about higher education?

In the long run, individual program and outcome assessments don't really matter. The kid who went to Yale, perhaps already knowing much of what he would be taught, already rooted in the networking that is at the heart of our society, is almost certainly going to come out on the other side of graduation in better shape than the average kid coming out of a community college.  The specific assessments each institution used are merely distractions. 

Meanwhile, all over the country faculty are scrambling to complete their assessment reports, stressing over whether the high number of failures or withdrawals among their students could have been affected by doing something differently.  As I have told multiple people this week, the fact that you had a high number of failures this semester may simply be a reflection of the population you had this semester.  We are all scrambling in the dark when it comes to figuring out how to do the difficult job of teaching.

All this rings especially poignant as I listen to my new favorite song (the song isn't that new, but I only recently heard it): Young The Giant's "God Made Man," which finishes with the line "God made man and his reason."

Sometimes I seriously question God's wisdom there. Sometimes I think man puts way too much credence on his [staying with the gender of the song] ability to analyze.  Perhaps our best assessment is proven from the gut.