01 May 2012
By Wayne Whitmore
I read a really interesting editorial this weekend from David Brooks, who writes for the New York Times (http://www.twincities.com/opinion/ci_20445813/david-brooks-beginning-college-reform). This article was concerned with teaching reform, and thus, assessment of student learning. This editorial touched upon many things, and cited numerous bits of research. Without independently verifying his sources, here’s some of what was mentioned.
➢ “…on average, students experienced a pathetic seven point gain in skills during their first two years in college…”
➢ “…in 1961, students spent an average of 24 hours a week studying… today’s students spend a little more than half that time…”
It goes on, but these are some blurbs from his column. He feels that a part of the solution would be value-added assessments. He feels colleges have to test more find out how we are doing. There is truth here; we do need to test more to see how our students are doing. As a faculty member who also advises students, I hear things like “find me a class to take that “X” teaches, because there are no tests in that class.” And I cringe when I hear this. As a faculty member, as well as assessment coordinator, I hope and expect my peers to meet minimal standards for academic rigor. And most do. How else will we know that what we are teaching is actually getting through?
Before I go farther, let me head off the logical argument that, “we test our students to death,” with faculty citing the Technical Skills Assessments for technical programs and the capstone testing in the Liberal Arts capstone courses. Is this truly enough? Keep these two questions in mind: (1) How much to students here learn? (2) How do we know? What I’m talking about here is assessment at the institutional level, not the programmatic level.
What do I mean by testing at the institutional level? I am NOT referring to the CCSSE or the Instructor Course Evaluations or the SSI. I am referring to the measurement of our Institutional Core Competencies that we all are supposed to be teaching to our students. And again, most are doing this, whether they are aware of it or not. Now, the next question I’ll hear is, “We are testing our students? Doesn’t this count?”
It does count to a point. However, our accrediting body will have higher expectations. And, as the push for accountability for public dollars rises, so will the state and federal government’s demands for accountability. If we drag our feet, we will experience more compelled mandatory testing. In other words, it is best to start the process for institutional assessment now before it is forced upon us. This would include assessing ALL of our ICCs, not just picking and choosing the easy ones.
In relation to this topic, someone asked me why we need Institutional Core Competencies. Well, why do we have ICCs? A short and sweet answer is that these are the “universals” that we feel all graduates of SCC should have a grasp of at the end of their tenure here. As mentioned above, most programs teach a good bit of these, including things like critical thinking, analysis and inquiry, and critical and creative thinking. Think about it for a minute- you do teach these. Additionally, they should also be listed on your Assessment Plan, and assessed just like your Program Core Competencies or MNtC goal areas are addressed.
So… what can we do? We could follow the model of St. Olaf and build all institutional assessment around the AACU LEAP model (http://www.aacu.org/leap/), which would work as our ICCs do very closely mirror those competencies. This would include mandatory pre and post-testing students at their entrance to SCC and upon their graduation from SCC, which truly would give an indication of learning and improvement. Or we find an alternate route that would include at least a mandatory post-test for graduating students. Or we wait for the federal government, the state government, the Higher Learning Commission, and other involved parties to not just dictate that we do this, but how we need to do it and what we should be testing on as well. It’s called accountability. And it’s not going away. Embrace it now or hug it like a distant cousin later… just know you’ll be doing it sooner than later.