Some Questions for Assessophiles

Alex Small takes issue with some of the approaches and aims of the assessment movement.

July 3, 2018

I have questions for people who actually believe in assessment. You know who I’m talking about: administrators, accreditors and federal officials who insist that we generate reports that analyze -- sorry, assess -- whether students are meeting lists of “learning goals.” The assessophiles need those reports so they can verify that we -- the apparently untrustworthy faculty -- are spending our time on things that are educationally valuable. Because wouldn’t it be terrible if we were spending our time on tedious exercises disconnected from teaching and learning?

Here’s what I’d like to ask those people.

First, do you think that the question “Does this test or assignment get at what it really means to learn this subject?” can be reduced to a rubric that was written to satisfy outsiders and their regulatory imperatives? Do you think that this question can be substantively answered via your report-generating processes?

Also, when you’re evaluating rubrics and learning goals for programs outside your field, and it’s 2 a.m. and your report is due soon, are you really paying attention to anything besides the presence or absence of “action verbs”? Be honest. Are you truly interested in assessing the students’ learning of my subject, or are you really just checking my competency in the use of those verbs? If my mastery of parts of speech is all that you care about, can’t you just peruse my publications? Or should I also dig up my GRE verbal score from 20 years ago?

Do you think that faculty members who eschew your exercises don’t pay attention to how students perform when we try new things? Yes, we all know someone who drones on for an hour thrice weekly, never sees students in office hours and gives only multiple-choice tests. But are all the rest of us similarly suspect? And if an honest assessment effort demonstrated that students weren’t learning anything from Professor Droning On, what concrete steps would you actually be prepared to take?

Do you really think we don’t make changes in response to what we observe in the classroom and to how our students perform? Do you think we don’t talk to colleagues about what we’ve observed or share ideas for improvement?

If you acknowledge such introspective activities and collegial discussions as positive aspects of academic culture, do you have suggestions for turning them into reports that would satisfy you? Could we do so without making it tedious and unsatisfying for people who pursued this modestly compensated career for the love of the subject and the joy of sharing it?

Speaking of modest compensation, how much of a stipend will you pay the poor sucker who agrees to produce the reports that you claim to want? Any bonus if the reports are actually meaningful?

Besides, what if we, in fact, found evidence that freshmen aren’t learning the foundations that they’ll need to truly understand the more advanced material? Would you want us to grade accordingly? What if we were to write a report showing that seniors nearing graduation have disturbing gaps in their knowledge? Would you want us to withhold the passing grades that they need in order to receive their diplomas? Or would you want us to bury this embarrassing information in some report that nobody will actually read?

Are your answers to the last few questions in any way influenced by the state legislature’s concerns about graduation rates?

Oh, I see; you want us to improve classes so that students do learn. Great! Will you give us the budgets needed for offering smaller classes? For reconfiguring lecture halls into active learning centers with round tables for small-group discussions, and other “best practices” that you heard about in a TED talk? Would you fund more assistants to help us teach -- I mean, facilitate -- those discussions?

Ah, you heard about this one guy who managed to transform, flip and disrupt his class, or whatever the current jargon is. Well, this one guy just happens to teach one course per semester, and most of his publications are about best practices for the same class that he gives TED talks about. Can we have 1-1 teaching loads like him?

Speaking of job descriptions, can assistant professors stop publishing in whatever specialty they were hired for and start publishing on pedagogy like the TED talker does? Will they still get tenure?

If we want to try something new that we heard about at that workshop that you sponsored (in the overly air-conditioned conference room with the broken coffee machine), can we just do it, or will you still want course revisions to go through umpteen layers of curriculum committees?

Oh, and we tried to do the paperwork for a course revision, but it turns out that nobody’s actually handled the learning outcomes documents for that course since the Bush administration. (Don’t ask which one.) Do you know where those files might be?

Finally, have you done an assessment of assessment? Do students learn more when faculty members perform these rituals? Do frequent assessment activities via administratively sanctioned rubrics lead to better learning than faculty members who experiment on a regular basis, bringing a variety of approaches in accordance with their variety of specialties and perspectives?

And do assessment budgets correlate with how much students learn? With how much they earn? With how well they’re prepared for productive work, the life of the mind and active citizenship? Do graduate and professional schools find that students are better prepared if their undergraduate institutions devoted substantial resources to formal assessment processes?

Why don’t you write a report on that and get back to me?


Alex Small is a professor of physics at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona. He likes asking uncomfortable questions. For some reason he doesn’t get invited to a lot of parties.


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