Grades and assessing learning: Can\’t we get along?
During a recent conversation about the value of comprehensive student learning assessment, one faculty member asked, “Why should we invest time, money, and effort to do something that we are essentially already doing every time we assign grades to student work?”
Most educational assessment zealots would respond by launching into a long explanation of the differences between tracking content acquisition and assessing skill development, the challenges of comparing general skill development across disciplines, the importance of demonstrating gains on student learning outcomes across an entire institution, blah blah blah (since these are my peeps, I can call it that). But from the perspective of an exhausted professor who has been furiously slogging through a pile of underwhelming final papers, I think the concern over a substantial increase in faculty workload is more than reasonable.
Why would an institution or anyone within it choose to be redundant?
If a college wants to know whether its students are learning a particular set of knowledge, skills, and dispositions, it makes good sense to track the degree to which that is happening. But we make a grave mistake when we require additional processes and responsibilities from those “in the trenches” without thinking carefully about the potential for diminishing returns in the face of added workload (especially if that work appears to be frivolous or redundant). So it would seem to me that any conversation about assessing student learning should emphasize the importance of efficiency so that faculty and staff can continue to fulfill all the other roles expected of them.
This brings me back to what I perceive to be an odd disconnect between grading and outcomes assessment on most campuses. It seems to me that if grading and assessment are both intent on measuring learning, then there ought to be a way to bring them closer together. Moreover, if we want assessment to be truly sustainable (i.e., not kill our faculty), then we need to find ways to link, if not unify, these two practices.
What might this look like? For starters, it would require conceptualizing content learned in a course as the delivery mechanism for skill and disposition development. Traditionally, I think we’ve envisioned this relationship in reverse order – that skills and dispositions are merely the means for demonstrating content acquisition – with content acquisition becoming the primary focus of grading. In this context, skills and dispositions become a sort of vaguely mysterious redheaded stepchild (with apologies to stepchildren, redheads, and the vaguely mysterious). More importantly, if we are now focusing on skills and dispositions, this traditional context necessitates an additional process of assessing student learning.
However, if we reconceptualize our approach so that content becomes the raw material with which we develop skills and dispositions, we could directly apply our grading practices in the same way. One would assign a proportion of the overall grade to the necessary content acquisition, and the rest of the overall grade (apportioned as the course might require) to the development of the various skills and dispositions intended for that course. In addition to articulating which skills and dispositions each course would develop and the progress thresholds expected of students in each course, this means that we would have to be much more explicit about the degree to which a given course is intended to foster improvement in students (such as a freshman-level writing course) as opposed to a course designed for students to demonstrate competence (such as a senior-level capstone in accounting procedures). At an even more granular level, instructors might define individual assignments within a given course to be graded for improvement earlier in the term with other assignments graded for competence later in the term.
I recognize that this proposal flies in the face of some deeply rooted beliefs about academic freedom that faculty, as experts in their field, should be allowed to teach and grade as they see fit. When courses were about attaining a specific slice of content, every course was an island. Seventeenth-century British literature? Check. The sociology of crime? Check. Cell biology? Check.
In this environment, it’s entirely plausible that faculty grading practices would be as different as the topography of each island. But if courses are expected to function collectively to develop a set of skills and/or dispositions (e.g., complex reasoning, oral and written communication, intercultural competence), then what happens in each course is irrevocably tied to what happens in previous and subsequent courses. And it follows that the “what” and “how” of grading would be a critical element in creating a smooth transition for students between courses.
Now it would be naïve of me to suggest that making such a fundamental shift in the way that a faculty thinks about the relationship between courses, curriculums, learning and grading is somehow easy. Agreeing to a single set of institutionwide student learning outcomes can be exceedingly difficult, and for many institutions, embedding the building blocks of a set of institutional outcomes into the design and deliver of individual courses may well seem a bridge too far.
However, any institution that has participated in reaccreditation since the Spellings Commission in 2006 knows that identifying institutional learning outcomes and assessing students’ gains on those outcomes is no longer optional. So the question is no longer whether institutions can choose to engage in assessment; the question is whether student learning, and the assessment of it, becomes an imposition that squeezes out other important faculty and staff responsibilities or if there is a way to coopt the purposes of learning outcomes assessment into a process that already exists.
In the end it seems to me that we already have all of the mechanisms in place to embed robust learning outcomes assessment into our work without adding any new processes or responsibilities to our workload. However, to make this happen we need to 1) embrace all of the implications of focusing on the development of skills and dispositions while shifting content acquisition from an end to a means to a greater end, and 2) accept that the educational endeavor in which we are all engaged is a fundamentally collaborative one and that our chances of success are best when we focus our individual expertise toward our collective mission of learning.
Author Bio: Mark Salisbury is director of institutional research and assessment at Augustana College, in Illinois. This essay is adapted from a post on his campus blog.