Moving From Paperwork to Pedagogy
Channeling Intellectual Curiosity into a Commitment to Assessment
By Peggy Maki

From the May 2002 AAHE Bulletin

 


Viewed as externally mandated, assessment of student learning typically ebbs and flows within an institution in relation to the timing of accreditation visits. Originating from an external force, namely accreditation, assessment is characterized as “burdensome,” “a chore,” or “an add-on” to faculty responsibilities, arousing resistance to compliance and resulting, oftentimes, in a short-lived commitment.

What if the origin of the commitment to assessing student learning were to come from within the institution? What if the origin of that commitment were to come from faculty members themselves, based on their intellectual curiosity about how students learn in disciplines, how students integrate their liberal learning into their majors, or how web-based technology, for example, develops or transforms thinking?

Consider why faculty members are attracted to their disciplines: A fascination with the kinds of problems or issues within their fields. An attraction to pursue new avenues of exploration. An interest in contributing new knowledge and perspective or in testing assumptions, claims, and hypotheses. A drive to discover or uncover new information that may well challenge theories or practice.

Consider why faculty members are drawn to teaching: A desire to develop critical thinkers and effective problem-solvers who ask questions, examine evidence, identify fallacies in underlying assumptions, integrate multiple perspectives, seek additional information, and challenge, or at least question existing practice or the status quo.

Finally, consider characteristic faculty member behavior during meetings: We look at issues from multiple perspectives, question colleagues’ underlying assumptions, seek clarity, or open up new lines of reasoning. Recall the number of times this behavior has manifested itself moments before a scheduled faculty meeting vote, as a faculty member asserts: “I think it would be perfunctory for us to vote on the proposal until we have had additional time to consider it in depth.” In departmental, faculty, and taskforce meetings, raising questions, seeking additional information, and challenging assumptions typify faculty behavior.

Making the Connection
The thread that connects faculty members’ commitment to their work inside and outside of the classroom is intellectual curiosity — the characteristic ability to question, challenge, look at an issue from multiple perspectives, seek more information before rushing to judgment, raise questions, deliberate, and craft well- reasoned arguments. What faculty members exhibit themselves they also desire to instill in their students: They want to help create individuals who will question, challenge, view an issue from multiple perspectives, and, yes, wonder.

Channeling faculty intellectual curiosity into exploring relationships between pedagogy and student learning extends curiosity into the focus of their teaching — into the ways in which students integrate, draw upon, and use the knowledge, abilities, habits of mind, and ways of knowing and problem solving that characterize those who work in a discipline. Rather than disconnected from content and teaching, assessment becomes the means of ascertaining what and how well students achieve what faculty members intend them to achieve.

Assessment as Scholarship
Extending intellectual curiosity into inquiry about student learning requires that institutions value and recognize this endeavor as a part of the scholarship of teaching and learning that contributes research on practice to higher education. In How People Learn: Bridging Research and Practice (National Academy Press, 1999, available free online at www.nap.edu/catalog/9457.html), the authors call for extending “the frontier of learning research by expanding the study of classroom practice.”

And in Knowing What Students Know: The Science and Design of Educational Assessment (National Academy Press, 2001, available free online at www.nap.edu/catalog/10019.html), the National Research Council challenges education to rethink current approaches to assessment: “Advances in the study of thinking and learning (cognitive science) and in the field of measurement have stimulated people to think in new ways about how students learn and what they know, what is therefore worth assessing, and how to obtain useful information about student competencies.”

From Curiosity to Inquiry
Here are some questions that might extend faculty intellectual curiosity into inquiry about student learning:

  • What kinds of understanding, abilities, dispositions, habits of mind, and ways of thinking, knowing, and problem solving do faculty members believe students should achieve by the time they graduate? How do faculty members contribute to these expectations within courses and programs? How do faculty members build on one another’s work to ensure that students have ample opportunity to develop institutional and programmatic learning outcomes?
  • What evidence would document students’ progress towards those expectations, and how could that evidence be captured so that faculty members could learn about patterns of student achievement to inform pedagogy and curriculum? Similarly, what evidence would document students’ level of achievement at the end of their studies?
  • How do educational experiences outside the classroom complement and contribute to expected learning outcomes? How do students make connections between what they learn in the classroom and what they learn or experience outside of the classroom? What do the curricula and other educational experiences “add up to”?
  • Given the diversity of students in higher education, including their experiences and learning histories, which students benefit from which teaching strategies, educational experiences, or educational processes believed to be responsible for contributing to expected student learning and development? What pedagogies or educational experiences develop the knowledge, understanding, abilities, habits of mind, and ways of knowing and problem solving that define a biologist, an accountant, or a sociologist, for example? When does a student studying to become a biologist begin to think and act like a biologist? How are curricula and pedagogy intentionally designed to develop knowledge, abilities, habits of mind, and ways of knowing? What evidence is there that these designs result in desired student learning and development?
  • What assumptions about teaching and learning underlie how faculty members teach in a discipline? What assumptions about assessment methods underlie when and how faculty members assess their students’ learning? How are methods of assessment aligned with content, pedagogy, and instructional design to deepen students’ learning and to foster transference of knowledge and abilities to new situations?

Developing Institutional Commitment
Institutional leaders need to frame a commitment to assessment as a professionally responsible endeavor, integral to teaching, that contributes to higher education’s learning about student learning. As Judith K. Litterst and Paula Tompkins conclude in the article “Assessment as a Scholarship of Teaching” (Journal of the Association for Communication Administration, January 2001), “Far from being ‘mere’ service, assessment — a creative and systematic study of situated teaching practices, which utilizes particular forms of research and knowledge — belongs in the scholarship of teaching.”

Creating an institutional environment that fosters inquiry into student learning means redesigning or creating new structures and processes to allow significant time for faculty and other educational professionals to conduct research on student learning, interpret results of assessment, and reflect on these interpretations to advance innovations in teaching and curricular design.

Institutions that claim assessment as their own will likely transform themselves to sustain a focus on student learning. The faculty will be supported by institutional structures, processes, and communication channels that symbolize the integration of assessment of student learning into the rhythms of institutional life. Time and space for discourse that focuses on the results of assessment — that builds in periods of self-reflection about students’ achievement of programmatic and institutional outcomes, as well as about innovations in pedagogy and curriculum — will mark institutional commitment to student learning.

These institutions will also create neutral zones to receive good news as well as not-so-good news about student learning to foster open inquiry about assessment results, institutional and programmatic self-reflection about those results, and development of innovations in teaching, curricular, and instructional design. These institutions will articulate the value of engaging in assessment as an avenue of research that advances pedagogy and broadens and deepens and challenges what we know about what and how students learn. These institutions will turn to faculty as the generators of significant questions and lines of inquiry about student learning, about the design of methods to assess learning over time, and about interpreting and using assessment results to inform pedagogy and curricular design.

Developing an institutional commitment to assessing student learning from the inside out requires that our colleges and universities establish principles of inquiry that emerge from and are sustained by faculty intellectual curiosity.


Peggy Maki is AAHE’s director of assessment. Contact her at pmaki@aahe.org.


Changing Institutional Priorities Workshop Series 
The continuing workshop series "Changing Institutional Priorities: Developing a Shared Understanding of the Value of Assessing Student Learning" provides support and assistance to institutions committed to strengthening their assessment efforts through promoting a culture that embraces change and the applied scholarship of teaching and learning. AAHE and the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Schools and Colleges (HLC) sponsor the series.

Teams develop individual plans, processes, and strategies to transition their institutions' cultures from having a sporadic institutional commitment to student outcomes assessment to having a shared understanding of the value of assessing student learning.

Applications are being accepted for the November 6-8 workshop in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and planning is under way for several more regional workshops in 2003 at the invitation of other accrediting agencies across the United States. For more information on these assessment workshops, see www.aahe.org/hlc or contact Kathleen Wert (202/293-6440 x770), assessment program manager, kwert@aahe.org; or Peggy Maki (202/293-6440 x794), director of assessment, pmaki@aahe.org.



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