Reflections: Assessment Is Not About Exposing the Faculty
It’s about building trust for increasing learning outcomes
Laura Helminski speaks with Higher Education Digest
Consider the following common scenario. When you enter a fitting room, close the door, and try on new clothes, you trust those brief moments in the room are private. What you reveal in those few seconds between outfits is between you, the mirror, and the closed door. The feeling of being naked and exposed doesn’t happen. You assess if it is a good fit. There is a natural trust the door will remain closed without cameras capturing your every move.
Increasing Gains in Systemic Assessment of Student Learning
Attend the June 16-17, 2004 assessment seminar in Denver.
Reflecting on learning assessment work indicates a similar need for trust. Faculty members often feel this process focuses on “opening” the door to the classroom, leaving them exposed. Faculty refer to the “transparent” classroom door as an unfair and unreasonable approach to increasing learning outcomes. Building trust in a learning assessment involves gaining support for teaching and learning outcomes as opposed to revealing the personal interactions between the teacher and students.
Higher Education Digest speaks with Laura Helminski, Chair, Communications and Reading Department at Rio Salado College, Maricopa Community College District, Phoenix, Arizona to get her perspective on campus-wide assessment and accountability.
Higher Education Digest: How do you foster support for assessment?
Laura Helminski: Assessment work must be understood, agreed on, and supported across the entire institution. It is important to understand that faculty may feel singled out and they will question why their processes should be revealed more than others in the institution. This creates an unequal face for assessment and less “buy-in.”
In Parker Palmer’s book, Courage to Teach, he says, “Good teaching comes from the identity and integrity of the teacher.” He discusses teaching as the most personal thing we do in public. The very nature of teaching is self-disclosing. Sharing data from this experience with the community is like stripping away only one part of the process for all to see. For assessment work to be effective, it needs to involve all processes and the whole institution, not just the faculty.
Everyone needs to be involved in assessment, including deans, department chairs, faculty, and students, to ultimately ensure increased student learning outcomes. Everyone needs to understand that the benefits to the students are realized when a systemic approach is used.
HED: What are the elements of assessment/accountability?
Helminski: In this context, accountability could be defined as revealing our actions – that is, documenting and analyzing our work processes. The main elements of accountability involve:
Agreeing on learning outcomes that align with the institution's mission.
Creating an assessment framework everyone understands.
Devoting resources, time, and money to accomplish assessment.
Developing a plan to improve learning outcomes from assessment data.
HED: How do you get the necessary data for accountability?
Helminski: Obtaining the right data for specified goals and desired outcomes is tricky. For a long time at Rio Salado College, we focused on getting sufficient data, but wound up with ‘so what’ data facts that the faculty felt we could not readily use for increasing learning outcomes. For instance, we collected data regarding the increased number of general education credits a student takes and level of writing skills the student had. That became a conversation of ‘so what’ – because we determined that was significant only if students are taking all their general education at one college, where the impact on writing is more measurable. With students enrolled in general education classes ‘swirling’ across multiple colleges, that data became less relevant to our assessment goals. The same thing occurred in conversations regarding the value of demographics data as data that could really help us increase our students’ learning.
Meaningful data asks questions such as: What is the student’s skill level in terms of a specific goal, for example, critical thinking? How are the students using the skill set? Is it measurable? And, what can we focus on to improve the use of this skill and increase student’s learning?
HED: What are some of the challenges of assessment?
Helminski: One of the biggest challenges is assessing over-extended and stressed students. Compared to the past, there are more part-time students working full-time. Complicating matters, many of these part-time students attend classes at multiple institutions. Their lifestyles make consistent effort in assessment and improvement difficult.
I believe that the biggest change in the past 25 years is not technology, but stress on the students. Many students barely have the time to study and attend classes; they don’t have the luxury to be full-time students. Despite the heavy workload, students indicate interest and value in knowing their skills and their learning. They need to be more involved in assessment than in the past. They want to know not just how they are doing, but how their teachers and the service areas and other departments are performing. They have become avid consumers.
HED: Have you noticed increased pressures from Federal and state agencies in terms of assessment and accountability?
Helminski: Yes. The increased interest in learning outcomes not only comes from Federal and state agencies, but it’s also being driven by changes in the mission and focus of accreditation agencies.
Governing boards also want to understand the data regarding students’ skills and what degrees mean. This generates conversations about what resources are needed, which provides an opportunity for faculty to explore ways to improve curriculum, teaching, and student learning outcomes. Plus, new voices are willing to join in these conversations and are asking what support they can provide. It’s now more of a collaborative process than in the past.
This is a wonderful opportunity and a chance for all constituents including faculty, staff, administration, students, parents, government agencies, and business partners to work together.
HED: How has continuous quality improvement affected assessment?
Helminski: With the continuous quality movement in higher education, the definition of quality itself has changed. Colleges can manage what quality means. An A grade is no longer just accepted on face value. A 4.0 in the classroom does not guarantee success in the workplace. Learning outcomes can be documented, analyzed, and improved through activities that are based on quality principles and practices.
Now the quality question is: How do we “live” and do our work versus what is the number of resources? Continuous quality improvement provides a framework as well as best practices for improving student learning.
HED: How do you approach campus-wide assessment without the faculty feeling “naked and exposed?”
Helminski: It’s not a single-minded focus on faculty. Campus-wide assessment is an all-inclusive commitment from class to class and department to department. The entire student experience needs to be understood. For instance, the rate of retention isn’t just a discussion for the administration or Student Services; the faculty need to be part of this discussion and committed to working on retention in collaboration with other people. With approaches like these, the mission of the college comes into play on a day-to-day basis and is no longer just stuffed in a file drawer. This mission lives and is present in core meetings.
A campus-wide assessment initiative is not a case of creating the transparent classroom and leaving the faculty exposed. It involves all constituents working together, trusting one another to be committed to improving learning outcomes for students and to the institution’s goals and mission. Eventually, the institution reaches the point where faculty, students, and all departments become comfortable with the process of continuous quality improvement and trust their privacy is protected.
Laura Helminski is a faculty member at Rio Salado College in the Maricopa Community College District in Phoenix, Arizona. She has taught communication, reading, and English courses at the community college level for 27 years including distance learning courses since 1987, and Internet communication and reading courses since 1996. She is the Faculty Chair for Communication and Reading, the Chair of the Student Achievement Committee since 1990, co-chair of two Accreditation Self Study committees, and a Learning Organization trainer and facilitator. She was a past Faculty Senate President, and recently completed 15 years as Faculty Development Coordinator. Laura has been named to be the faculty chair of the Maricopa Community College District Student Academic Achievement and Assessment Committee for 2004-2005. She has also presented national webinars on “Introduction to the Continuous Quality Improvement Approach for Effective Student Assessment” for Datatel.
Laura has worked with educators in many states on changing organizational cultures, and on increasing student achievement. She has completed extensive training and research in Systems Thinking and Learning Organization theory and applications. Laura has facilitated numerous faculty member development sessions, and has given presentations across the state and country on organizational change in higher education. She was Rio Salado College’s Faculty of the Year for the 1991-92, and Innovator of the Year in 1988. In 2003, she received the Association of Community College Trustees' Western Region William H. Meardy Faculty Award.