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On Assessment (and our practice of it)

My thoughts on the Critical Librarianship and Pedagogy Symposium continue, this time with a focus on assessment. Carolyn Caffrey Gardner and Rebecca Halpern facilitated an enjoyably contentious discussion on assessment and critical praxis that encouraged us to not only question our personal and institutional assessment practices but also our motivations for conducting assessment. During the discussion Gr Keer posed a question to the room that I think has the potential to help us rethink and, in many cases, reshape our own relationship to assessment.

The Question

Within academia, why do so many librarians toe the assessment line? Why are so many of us assessment advocates and practitioners? 

I won’t say all librarians fall into the assessment advocate category, however, the preponderance of literature, professional development opportunities, courses, and grants related to library and information literacy assessment would seem to indicate that as a profession, academic librarians are (for the most part) IN IT. We often know our college or university’s assessment coordinator on a first name basis, can write learning outcomes in our sleep, and are sometimes the first ones to volunteer for institution-wide assessment work. While many of our colleagues outside the library issue the oft-heard hue and cry against number-crunching, standardized testing, and other stereotypical practices, we often try to defend assessment as a means of improving teaching and learning.

But why? Have we been effectively indoctrinated while in library school? Is it a meaningful practice to us? Do we see it’s value and understand it’s importance?

I think (like all things) there’s a multi-layered answer to Gr’s question that I’ll attempt to parse below.

The Noble Answer

This answer was one of the first responses issued during the conference discussion, and I have to say it’s one I’ve used on a number of occasions (as recently as one month ago).

Unlike traditional college and university faculty, we don’t give grades. We only see our students sporadically throughout the semester/quarter/term so we need some way to determine a) what we are learning and b) how we can improve as teachers. Practicing meaningful assessment give us the opportunity to determine both. 

With this answer assessment is portrayed as the practice of doing good. We might evaluate essays with IL rubrics, examine search exercise worksheets, or read through minute papers to help ourselves better serve our students and improve our own information literacy education programs. Assessment is about improving our professional practice and helping our students. This answer seems most in line with assessment philosophies found in professional development programs like ACRL’s Immersion Program.

The Practical Answer

We do it because we have to do it. 

Whether it’s statistics we need to report to ACRL, data we need to feed into our college’s assessment management system, or reporting we need to do to satisfy reaccreditation requirements, assessment is often the thing we all know we have to do but don’t really want to do. We don’t want the library to be singled out for failure, so we do what we have to do in order to keep in the higher-ups good graces.

Many of the faculty at my liberal arts college are deeply suspicious of assessment initiatives and would readily answer with this perfunctory response. It’s something higher education accrediting bodies are now requiring, so we’d best get to it in the most painless / easiest way possible.

The Answer Revealing an Ulterior Motive 

We do it to demonstrate the value of academic libraries within the teaching, learning, and research practices of our institutions. 

The Value of Academic Libraries Initiative’s Assessment in Action Program makes strong use of this answer. Through assessment, we can tell the story of our library. Spoiler alert: In that story, we are the hero. We are integral to everything our faculty, students, and staff do and we should be funded and respected accordingly. Yes, assessment is good for learning how to better serve our campus community, but it’s also really good for showing those in positions of power that we are, indeed, important.

The Answer Revealing Professional Insecurities

WE TEACH TOO!!! SEE WHAT WE DO!!! SOMETIMES OUR ASSESSMENT IS ALSO RESEARCH!!!

Depending on how it’s expressed, the “ulterior motive” answer can sometimes come across as librarians protesting a bit too much. On my more cynical days I wonder if our commitment to “meaningful” assessment practices is us sort of staking our claim in academia. Information literacy education and assessment is our “thing.” Being knowledgable in this area can make us experts on campus. We suddenly become the ones our colleagues turn to for help drafting learning outcomes, developing rubrics, or writing assessment plans.

I also can’t help but question whether assessment has become a scholarship default. For academic librarians published research is often a requirement of tenure, promotion, continuing appointment, or career advancement. Yet depending on where our graduate education takes place, we may not possess the intensive research methods knowledge and experience of our faculty peers. For many of us, conducting assessment and writing up our findings serves to validate our existence as teachers and scholars. Are we really doing assessment for the good of our students and institutions or for ourselves? Can we be doing both?

The Cultural Answer (a slight return to altruism) 

I shared my idea for this blog post with a colleague whose professional career started off in cataloging, and her answer to the assessment question surprised me. Her take on our profession’s assessment advocacy is informed by her experience in our profession as one in which we share information freely and encourage others to do the same. Librarians advocate making information available to others, so perhaps our strong interest in assessment is an extension of this value/philosophy. We want to know what our students are learning and we want to share that information with others in hopes that it will not only improve our own teaching and instruction programs, but those of others as well.

Extending this explanation, or perhaps digging down to its root, I suspect that we could also say that librarians are deeply curious people. Perhaps assessment is our attempt to satisfy our curiosity about teaching and learning? If so, do we run the risk of simplifying a complicated practice–educating students–by developing questions that will ultimately give us manageable answers? Or can we learn to be ok with the ambiguity that accompanies assessment practice?

The Non-Answer

On any given day I may feel any of the above responses more deeply than another, but it doesn’t change the fact that assessment is woven into my professional practice. What I seek to do then is to assess learning in ways that are personally meaningful to me, helpful to my library, and not alienating to my students. I think that in doing so I manage to satisfy the external pressures that so often force us to assess before we are ready to do so (and as a result, do it badly). I don’t want to be a slave to assessment or so inflexible to serendipitous opportunities for teaching and learning that I miss a chance to really connect with students because it’s not the result of a pre-determined learning outcome. The tension between assessment as requirement and assessment as meaningful practice still exists in my day-to-day work life.

If you get a chance, I highly encourage you to examine the questions Rebecca and Carolyn drafted for their discussion and perhaps try to answer them with your colleagues. I’d be interested in hearing your responses.

2 Comments

  1. As an institution and a library we are currently wading through some very murky assessment waters. I admit to feeling all of those things for assessment at once. Thanks for laying it out much more clearly than in my head!

    • We’re in a similar situation at St. Mary’s…murky is definitely the appropriate word. I think if we can’t be honest about our relationship to assessment we run the risk of doing it really badly. Glad to know I’m not the only one who feels all these feelings at once!

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