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Assessment Is Not a Four-Letter Word

This post was originally published by me on Beyond the Bookshelves, the blog of The Library at St. Mary’s College of Maryland

The Terror of Assessment

Did someone say assessment?
Photo credit: Terror by pablokdc on Flickr

If there’s one word that can easily give most college and university faculty the chills, it’s assessment. It typically conjures up notions of standardized tests, bureaucrats meddling in the classroom, and legions of zombie-like students who only know how to answer multiple-choice questions. Kenneth Bernstein’s article on The Washington Post’s The Answer Sheet blog struck a cord with educators frustrated by the K-12 classroom experiences created by the No Child Left Behind Act and served as a warning for those in higher education: Watch out. The bureaucrats are coming for you too.
Indeed there are very vocal politicians riding the wave of economic uncertainty, unemployment, and increasing student loan debt who demand that institutions of higher education and those who teach in them demonstrate their impact on their students and the nation’s economy. Rick Perry’s continuing crusade in Texas is a prime example of government officials delving into the operations of their flagship universities, demanding changes, and even calculating professors worth.

Libraries are no strangers to this kind of top-down assessment. We’ve always been subject to outside scrutiny and have often been asked by library board of trustees, academic administrators, faculty, and the general public to prove our worth. Much of this pressure has resulted in rarely read statistical reports on library use and the dreaded “Return on Investment” (ROI) calculators that were all the rage in public libraries a few years ago.

Given the climate of accusation-based accountability that accompanies most assessment practices, it’s no wonder that assessment has turned into academia’s newest obscenity. Assessment is what gets forced on you and your classroom when tuition bills increase, jobs are scarce, and students can’t write a short paragraph without grammatical errors. Whenever the word is mentioned, people’s postures change, eyes narrow, and hands are ready to write a well-researched rebuttal.

Assessment has been claimed by the powerful, when really it’s a practice that should give educators the power to evaluate student learning in their classrooms and and inform their teaching. In academic library circles, Dr. Debra Gilchrist (Vice President of Learning and Student Success at Pierce College) is the assessment guru. After attending the Association of College and Research Libraries Information Literacy Immersion Program in 2008 and hearing Deb speak, my entire view of assessment changed. Here’s Deb in her own words:

…assessment is much more than gathering data. Assessment is a thoughtful and intentional process by which faculty and administrators collectively, as a community of learners, derive meaning and take action to improve…Assessment is about telling a story–the story of our students’ learning, the story of our instruction program, the story of our contributions to overall student success.
(from A Twenty Year Path: Learning about Assessment, Learning from Assessment in Communications in Information Literacy, vol. 3, no. 2, 2009)

Assessment is not research. The ultimate goal of assessing student learning is not to prove a return on investment, justify an increase in salary or defend a job. That may be where assessment has been taken in the past, but we still have the opportunity to take back assessment and make it our own.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Value of Academic Libraries Initiative is an excellent example of higher education educators using assessment in the right way: to tell a story about student learning. As a part of this initiative, ACRL was awarded a $250,000 grant by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) to develop the Assessment in Action (AiA) Program, which provides training and support to teams of librarians and campus collaborators (faculty, administrators, etc.) who will undertake an assessment project at their home colleges and universities. The goal of each project is to examine the relationship between the library and student learning.

St. Mary’s was selected as one of the 75 institutional teams to take part in the first cohort of the AiA Program. Our focus will be on librarians’ involvement in the First Year Seminar (FYS) and whether or not it makes an impact on students’ information literacy skill development. We have excellent survey information from the Office of the Core Curriculum on students’ self-reported skill development and faculty’s opinions on students’ skill development which we hope to incorporate into our own assessment plan. One of the recommendations from the AiA Program facilitators was that our assessment project be folded into our everyday workflow so that assessment would be authentic and not burdensome on those involved. We work with FYS faculty every year and hope that some will take an interest in our assessment project this year.

As a member of this first AiA Program cohort, our team will benefit from the assessment knowledge of several ACRL l facilitators, including Dr. Gilchrist. We’re excited to begin this project, and hope that by the end of it we can at least convince a few people in higher education that assessment can be done at a micro-level, rather than be mandated from the top. Our assessment project is ultimately for the greater good. We want to find out if the way we teach information literacy is working and how we can improve our efforts to help our students, which is all assessment should ever really be about: Helping students learn.

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