Outcomes Assessment: What’s All the Fuss?

Wordle: Assessment as LearningAs all good educators know, continual improvement does not happen without critical examination and reflection: therefore, for this year’s New Faculty Institute, I built in a formative assessment.

One of the responses that most moved me was this comment:

I think the biggest takeaway for me from this institute is realizing that good teaching is valued by the state system.  Maybe that’s weird to say, but this means a lot when it comes to finding ways to grow and develop as a teacher myself, knowing the commitment and support that exists for good practice.

These words warm my heart because I have known, for years, that the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges does indeed value good teaching.

My co-facilitator and boss, Bill Moore, has been leading these convenings far longer than I have (this was my first one, as I’ve been on the job about a month now), and one of the reasons this position is my dream job is the opportunity to work so closely with a man who has devoted a substantial amount of his career to supporting faculty in the exploration of the realities and complexities of this work.

This is illustrated in the opening slides of the PowerPoint presentation we showed participants on Outcomes Assessment: the first slide is a quote from H.L. Mencken that states “Every Complex Question Has a Simple Answer . . . And It’s Wrong.”

It was Bill’s leadership and facilitation of The Big ideas Project, in fact, that first attracted me to the work of outcomes assessment in 2003, back when I was adjunct faculty and a “freeway flier” at three different two year colleges along the I-5 corridor.  The key question has intrigued and challenged faculty for the last decade:

“Assuming for the moment that this introductory course is the LAST course the students will ever take in the area (as opposed to the first in a series of courses), what core discipline-specific ideas/concepts do you want ALL students taking the course to understand deeply, i.e., be able to apply and even transfer to other settings five years later?”

This question really resonates with faculty, who sense its inherent wisdom, recognize the implicit assumptions it challenges, and embrace the pedagogical innovation it implies.

When we presented the question to faculty, many participants noted the profundity of this inquiry question.  As one faculty member who attended the Institute wrote in response to question one:

“Consider what you want students to still know 5 years from now.  10 years from now. ”  Brilliant.

Bill has often said (and written) that outcomes assessment is about sponsoring conversations, and, because of my early involvement with the state-wide conversation around the Big Ideas, I have always seen outcomes assessment as asking questions (rather than delivering pat methodologies or a forcing everyone to use a standardized test).

Yet, as we all know, there is still a lot of confusion around outcomes assessment.  As one faculty member wrote:

Please explain WHY assessment has become such a massive buzzword in education in recent years.  Some of us are lost.

There are lots of potential answers to this question, obviously, and I hope to pose potential answers through this blog (and hear other responses through guest bloggers and the conversations via comments.

However, right now, I’ll let Bill share his answer in this short six minute video that he posted to his blog, Moore’s Musings, the other day.  It’s a very simple answer, in one sense: that outcomes assessment “is simply part of the learning process, not just a means of documenting or judging that learning.”

But it’s the simplicity of a mantra: as you meditate on the idea, the multiple nuances, resonances, and complexities of that truth emerge.

Listen (and watch the visuals!) as Bill explains his perspective on the value of outcomes assessment: “the most powerful learning involves changing our students’ understanding of core concepts and ways of interpreting the world around them, . . . I would argue that the best way to do this is by focusing on assessment as learning.”

What is outcomes assessment in your experience?

2 thoughts on “Outcomes Assessment: What’s All the Fuss?

  1. Non scholae sed vitae – and also assessments should work for improving lifelong learning and scholarship. The short term learning objectives (i.e. those aimed to pass the course) are very annoying from an adult student’s point of view, and makes me think the instructor is just wasting my time. Shouldn’t the goal be students’ learning instead of just verifying the act of teaching happening?

    Then again I DO have a diverse view of education – coming from a country where teacher education is standardized (and really hard to get in), but K-12 system remains not standardized. I am going through my doctoral studies in the U.S. and it is very different from my masters studies in Finland.

  2. I would definitely agree the goal is “learning” and not “just verifying the act of teaching happening”; if anything is being “verified” by thoughtful assessments, it’s actually learning, not teaching. Too often, however, assessment devolves to tests of rote learning (what I think you might be referring to when you mention short term learning objectives) rather than real opportunities for you as a student to demonstrate and reinforce learning more likely to be retained and transferred beyond the course. And of course it should also contribute to your capacity as a student (and lifelong learner) to self-assess and to understand what quality work looks like.

    I’m curious about what differences you’ve observed between your master’s work in Finland and the doctoral studies here in the U.S., especially as it relates to this discussion of assessment…

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