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Assessment Day offers food for thought

Nationally recognized expert Linda Suskie offers tips and advice to faculty, staff and administrators who do assessment at UB during the opening session of the Assessment Day workshop. Photo: Steve Morse


Published December 5, 2013

“Assessment isn’t going to work unless you make student learning and success a true priority.”
Linda Suskie, nationally recognized assessment expert

Decide what you want students to learn and make sure they learn it.

This definition of assessment is a simple one, but one that Linda Suskie, a national authority on the topic, calls “brilliant.”

And it was a focus of Assessment Day, a recent half-day professional development workshop led by Suskie for faculty, staff and administrators who do assessment at UB.

A former vice president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education and a former director of the American Association for Higher Education’s Assessment Forum, Suskie told workshop attendees that teaching follows a four-step cycle.

It starts, she explained, with having a clear sense of destination, or learning goals — what students should be able to do when they complete a course, a program or a degree. Some destinations are crystal clear —there are concrete things students in nursing or engineering, for example, should be able to do. The destinations may be a little fuzzier in the arts and humanities, she admitted, although those instructors also should have a sense of what they want their students to learn.

Instructors then should make sure their students have the opportunity to learn those things, she said. The research shows that students learn what they’re graded on. “Students focus their mental energy and their time on the things they’re going to be graded on,” Suskie said. “So unless you give actual assignments, or test questions, or projects, or something they’re going to be graded on, a lot of them are not going to learn what you want them to.”

The third step in the cycle is the assessment. “What I have found … is that at a college that is really struggling with assessment, almost always the problem is not with the assessment,” she said. “The problem is one of the first two steps: either you don’t have clear goals or your curriculum really isn’t designed to help students achieve those goals. If you have clear goals and the students are learning it and they’re showing you that they’ve learned it, you already have the assessment evidence. And the third step is just a matter of getting it and organizing it and coordinating it.”

The final step in the process, she said, is that “you’re just not collecting the data to ship off to Middle States; you’re collecting it to use and reflect on and improve your teaching — not just individually, but collaboratively.”

But what is good assessment?

Suskie noted that while Middle States has four pages of assessment standards, she can boil those down to four rules. “If you can do these four things, you’ll be in great shape,” she said.

  • The data that is collected is useful. “The number one rule for good assessment is that it’s useful and that you actually use it,” she said, telling workshop participants that if they are “cranking out data that sits on a shelf somewhere, stop doing it and start doing something else. It’s a waste of time.” To be useful, assessment should be measuring those things that are considered to be important goals, she added, with the evidence being used to inform important decisions, including allocation of resources.
  • Assessment evidence must be reasonably accurate, current and truthful so that it can be used with confidence to inform decisions.
  • Data must be easy to understand so that it can be shared with others. It must be short, simple, clear and easy to find, and makes a clear, meaningful point.
  • Standards must be clear, appropriately rigorous and justifiable. “You really can’t use results without having a real, clear sense about what’s good enough,” she said. “What are successful results or results that we feel we need to have?”

Suskie said that at those colleges and universities that really succeed with assessment, “it’s not about collecting data; it’s making the call for evidence part of every conversation.”

She offered an example: “Are your students writing well enough? Let’s actually look at the data; let’s look at what the problem with their writing is at a systematic level — is it with grammar, organization, putting together compelling arguments?

“What is the issue?” she asked. “Really look at that and then you can figure out what the answer is.”

Suskie cited three major barriers to assessment: a lack of understanding of the value and importance of assessment, a lack of resources to engagement in assessment and a fear of change and risk-taking.

“Assessment isn’t going to work unless you make student learning and success a true priority,” she said. “For me, we’re here to give students the best possible education. I don’t see how you can do that without systematic assessment.”