Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


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A few suggestions on working from home

Posted on March 25, 2020 at 6:05 AM

The entire planet, including the higher education community, has been rocked to the core by the COVID-19 virus and efforts to contain it. Many people are suddenly teaching and working from home for the first time in their lives.

 

I’ve been working from home for decades, starting when I was on parental leave when my children were born in the 1980s. Starting in 1999, my jobs had extremely long commutes, so I negotiated working from home one or two days a week. For the last eight years, I’ve been a freelance consultant working exclusively from home. My experience hasn’t been the same as yours, but I’ve got some suggestions that may help you.

 

1. Go easy on yourself. What many of us have been through in the past few weeks is akin to starting a new job in a new environment under incredibly stressful circumstances—simultaneously learning new job skills on an incredibly steep learning curve while simultaneously caring for children, supervising home-schooling, and dealing with debilitating anxiety over the health and safety of our loved ones and the practicalities of providing household necessities. No wonder we’re overwhelmed! But recognize that, in some ways, things will start to get better. You’ll figure out a routine; you’ll figure out how best to use your college’s learning management system; you’ll figure out how to adjust this semester’s assignments; and you’ll figure out how to use a gas pump without infecting yourself (tip I learned yesterday: put your hand in a dog poop bag). It will not always be this bad.

 

2. The hardest part of working from home may be self-discipline. Unless you’re facing an imminent, intractable deadline, home has plenty of distractions. There have plenty of times the laundry has looked a lot more appealing than the project that was facing me! I think the only way to address this is to appraise yourself honestly and build in whatever discipline you need. For example, if I have to read something deadly dull, I promise myself a cup of coffee when I’m done, but not before.

 

3. Carve out the right workspace. Again understand what you need to make working-at-home work for you. I’ve learned that I must be in front of a window, the bigger the better. So, though I initially created a workspace in a spare bedroom, our kitchen island has turned into my office, because it overlooks the biggest window in the house, with a great view of our backyard. I think I do some of my best thinking while looking out the window. But maybe you need that spare bedroom, so you can literally close the door and turn off work at the end of the day. When our children were young, my workspace was in the family room so I could be there for them.

 

4. Working from home is lonely. I’m an off-the-charts introvert and even I miss water-cooler camaraderie. Because most of my work is confidential, I can’t vent about that asinine e-mail to anyone. Here’s where technologies such as e-mail listservs, social media, video technologies (Skype, Face Time, Zoom), texts, and old-fashioned phone calls become really important. The ASSESS listserv has been a lifesaver for me in terms of staying connected with professional peers. I’ve also joined some Facebook groups focused on some of my outside interests. If you have friends or colleagues who have work-at-home experience, tap them for ideas.

 

5. Evolve into a routine that works for you. I’m an early riser, so my day starts early, in my PJs, before anyone else is up, with a cup of coffee, checking routine e-mails while the caffeine sinks in. Once I’m fully caffeinated, I tackle the meatier stuff. Because I start early, I stop most work by late afternoon. I do work on weekends, because that’s when e-mails, phone calls, and appointments die down and I can work on things that require blocks of uninterrupted time, like writing or preparing a workshop. But this is what works for me. The point is to figure out a routine that works best for you.

 

6. Keep e-mails under control. While meetings can still be held by conference call, Skype, or Zoom, your work-from-home life will probably have fewer meetings and a lot more e-mails. E-mails are the one thing I monitor 24/7, constantly deleting the ones I don’t need to read and replying to the easily answered ones. Otherwise, they balloon out of control, and I’ve learned an overflowing e-mail in-box stresses me. To keep my e-mail in-box under control, I also use a lot of e-mail folders. There’s one for each project, and when the project is done, the folder goes into a “Past Projects” mega-folder so it’s out of sight but there if I need to refer to it. I also have a “Read” folder for those interesting e-mails that I’d like to read…someday. And there’s a “Hold” folder for emails for which I’m waiting for an answer. Those folders really help keep me sane.

 

7. Stay healthy. Remember I told you our kitchen island is my office? I’ve gained weight since I started working from home full-time. Stocking only healthy food helps, but my problem is I simply eat too much—it’s easy to turn a work break into a snack break. Exercise is really, really important.

 

8. Celebrate the positives of working from home. You don’t have to get dressed up for work. You don’t have that commute. If you’ve had fixed work hours and now have a bit more flexibility, take advantage of it. Go for a walk when today’s weather is at its nicest point, and truly enjoy springtime. If you live in a region where stores are still open, weekday mornings are wonderful times to shop—the stores are empty and service is great (the staff so bored that they’re eager to help). Your dog loves having you home, and being around a pet is a great destresser. And, unlike millions of Americans, you still have a job. Working at home is minimizing your chance of contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to loved ones.

 

9. Start a post-COVID-19 to do list. This will pass, though not without lasting hardship and loss. Most of those who contract COVID-19 will recover and, once they do, they’ll be immune, no longer contagious, and able to resume their normal lives. For the rest of us, there will eventually be a vaccine. Start a list of things you want to do after COVID-19 subsides: dinners with friends and family, concerts and museums you want to go to, vacations you want to take, home improvements that aren’t possible now, conferences you enjoy. It will give you something to look forward to, and that will help you get through this.

 

 

Some assessment smiles for the holidays

Posted on December 22, 2019 at 8:50 AM

I stumbled across an old folder of assessment-related witticisms that I’ve collected over the years—literally decades. Here are some of my favorites. Unfortunately, the sources of some are lost to time. If you know any missing sources, or if you know any other good witticisms, please let me know!

 

I’m all in favor of keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of fools. Let’s start with surveys. (Frank Lloyd Wright)

 

Measurements are not to provide numbers but insight. (Ingrid Bucher)

 

You cannot fix through analysis what you bungled by design. (Karen Zaruba)

 

The lasting measure of good teaching is what the individual student learns and carries away. (Stanford Erickson)

 

Remember that ‘average’ is simply the best of the poorest and the poorest of the best. (Dan Galvin)

 

Description of a grade: An inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material. (P. Dressel)

 

He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lampposts—for support rather than illumination. (Andrew Lang)

 

You got to be careful if you don’t know where you’re going, because you might not get there. (Yogi Berra)

 

The way a question is asked limits and disposes the ways in which any answer to it—right or wrong—may be given. (Susanne Langer)

 

We don’t know who we are until we see what we can do. (Martha Grimes)

 

University politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small. (Henry Kissinger)

 

What gets measured, gets managed. (Peter Drucker)

 

To teachers, students are the end products—all else is a means. Hence there is but one interpretation of high standards in teaching: standards are highest where the maximum number of students—slow learners and fast learners alike—develop to their maximal capacity. (Joseph Seidlin)

 

Education has produced a vast population able to read but unable to distinguish what is worth reading. (G. M. Trevelyan)

 

It’s easier to see the mistake on someone else’s paper. (Cynthia Copeland Lewis)

 

For every complex question there is a simple answer—and it’s wrong. (H. L. Mencken)

 

For so it is, O Lord my God, I measure it! But what it is I measure, I do not know. (St. Augustine)

 

To those of you who have received honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And to the “C” students, I say: You, too, can be president of the United States. (George W. Bush)

 

It is easier to perceive error than to find truth, for the former lies on the surface and is easily seen, while the latter lies in the depth, where few are willing to search for it. (Johann von Goethe)

 

Old teachers never die, they just grade away. (Henny Youngman)

 

Given particular subject matter or a particular concept, it is easy to ask trivial questions or to lead the child to ask trivial questions. It is also easy to ask impossibly difficult questions. The trick is to find the medium questions that can be asked and take you somewhere. This is the big job of teachers and textbooks. (David Page)

 

The color of truth is gray. (Andre Gide)

 

Consistency is always easier to defend than correctness.

 

Every bureaucracy generates paperwork in a logarithmic fashion. A one-page directive will inevitably lead to a five-page guideline, a ten-page procedure, and a 25-page report. (Ed Karl)

 

The facts, although interesting, are irrelevant to your critics.

 

The more time you spend in reporting on what you are doing, the less time you have to do anything. (Dan Galvin)

 

It’s hard to be nostalgic when you can’t remember anything. Keep critical documents to verify your conclusions.

 

Stability is achieved then you spend all your time doing nothing but reporting on the nothing you are doing.

 

When confronted by a difficult problem, you can solve it more easily by reducing it to the question, “How would the Lone Ranger have handled this?” (Karyn Brady)

 

The last grand act of a dying institution is to issue a newly revised, enlarged edition of the policies and procedures manual. (Eric Hoffer)

 

If you do a job too well, you’ll get stuck with it. (Roy Slous)

 

Why Do I Assess?

Posted on January 31, 2019 at 7:45 AM

Last year was not one of the best for higher ed assessment. A couple of very negative opinion pieces got a lot of traction among higher ed people who had been wanting to say, “See? Assessment is really as stupid and pointless as I’ve always thought it was.” At some American universities, this was a major setback on assessment progress.


The higher ed assessment community came together quickly with a response that I was proud to contribute to. But now that we’re in 2019, perhaps it would help if each of us in the assessment community reflects on why we’re here. Here’s my story, in three parts, about why assessment is my passion.


The first part is that I’m a data geek, so I find assessment fun. My first job out of grad school was in institutional research, and my favorite part of the job was getting a printout of student survey results and poring over it, trying to find the story in the numbers (to me it’s a treasure hunt), and sharing that story with others in ways that would get them excited about either feeling good about what’s going well or doing something about areas of concern.


The second part is that I love to teach. I’m not a great teacher, but I want to be the best teacher I can. I’ve always looked forward to seeing how my students do on tests and assignments. I can’t wait to tally up how they did on each test question or rubric criterion (that’s the data geek part of me). I cheer the parts they did well on and reflect on the parts where they didn’t. Why did so many miss Question 12? Can I do anything to help them do better, either during what’s left of this class or in the next one? If I can’t figure out what happened, I ask my students at the next class and, trust me, they’re happy to tell me how I screwed up!


The final reason that assessment is my passion is that I’m convinced that part of the answer to the world’s problems today is to help everyone get the best possible education. This dawned on me about 25 years ago, when I was on an accreditation team visiting a seminary. The seminary’s purpose was to educate church pastors (as opposed to, say, researchers or scholars). It was doing a thorough job educating students on doctrine, but there was very little in the curriculum on preparing students to help church members and others hear what Christians call the Good News. There was little attention to helping students develop skills to listen to and counsel church members, communicate with people of diverse backgrounds, and assess community needs, not to mention the practical skills of running a church such as budgeting and fundraising. While I’m not one to push my faith on others, I think the world might be a better place if people truly understood and truly followed the teachings of many faiths. If that’s the case, the world needs pastors well-prepared to do this. The seminary I visited had, I thought, a moral obligation to ensure—through assessment—that its graduates are prepared to be the best possible pastors, with all the skills that pastors need.


Since then, I’ve felt the same about many other colleges and many other disciplines. The world needs great teachers, nurses, lawyers, accountants, and artists. When I’ve visited U.S. service academies, I’m reminded that the U.S. needs great military officers.


Even more, the world needs people who can do all the things we promise in our gen ed curricula. The world needs people who can think critically, who recognize and avoid unethical behavior, who are open to new ideas, who can work with people from diverse backgrounds, who can evaluate the quality of evidence, arguments or claims, who are committed to serving their communities. Again I’m convinced that the world would be a far better place if everyone could do these things well.


None of us can change the world alone. But each of us can do our best with the students in our orbit, trying our best to make sure—through decent-quality assessments—that they’ve really learned what’s most important. Whenever anyone looks at the results of any assessment, be it a class quiz or a college-wide assessment, and uses those results to change what or how they teach, at least some students will get a better education as a result.


We need those better-educated students. This is what drives me. This is why I am devoting my life to helping others learn how to assess student learning. Assessment is one way each of us can help make the world a better place.

So you want to be a consultant?

Posted on November 21, 2017 at 8:25 AM

From time to time people contact me for advice, not on assessment or accreditation but for tips on how to build a consulting business. In case you’re thinking the same thing, I’m sorry to tell you that I really can’t offer much advice.


My consulting work is the culmination of 40 years of work in higher education. So if you want to spend the next 40 years preparing to get into consulting work, I can tell you my story, but if you want to build a business more quickly, I can’t help.


I began my career in institutional research, then transitioned into strategic planning and quality improvement. These can be lonely jobs, so I joined relevant professional organizations. Some of the institutions where I worked would pay for travel to conferences only if I was presenting, so I presented as often as I could. And I became actively involved in the professional organizations I joined—I was treasurer of one and organized a regional conference for another, for example. All these things helped me network and make connections with people in higher education all over the United States.


All institutional researchers deal with surveys, and early in my career I found people asking me for advice on surveys they were developing. Writing a good survey isn’t all that different from writing a good test, which I’d learned how to do in grad school. (My master’s is in educational measurement and statistics from the University of Iowa.) After finding myself giving the same advice over and over, I wrote a little booklet, which gradually evolved into a monograph on questionnaire surveys published by the Association for Institutional Research. I started doing workshops around the country on questionnaire design.


I love to teach, so concurrently throughout my career I’ve taught as an adjunct at least once a year—all kinds of courses, from developmental mathematics to graduate courses. That’s made a huge difference in my consulting work, because it’s given me credibility with both the teaching and administrative sides of the house.


Then I had a life-changing experience: a one-year appointment in 1999-2000 as director of the Assessment Forum at the old American Association for Higher Education. People often asked me for recommendations for a good soup-to-nuts primer on assessment. At that time, there wasn’t one (there were good books on assessment, but with narrower focuses). So I wrote one, applying what I learned in my graduate studies to the higher education environment, and was lucky enough to get it published. The book, along with conference sessions, continued networking, and simply having that one-year position at AAHE, built my reputation as an assessment expert.


When I went into full-time consulting about six years ago, I did read up a little on how to build a consulting business. I built a website so people could find me, and I built a social media presence and a blog on my website to drive people to the website. But I don’t really do any other marketing. My clients tell me that they contact me because of my longstanding reputation, my book, and my conference sessions.


So if you want to be a consultant, here's my advice. Take 40 years to build your reputation. Start with a graduate degree from a really good, relevant program. Be professionally active. Teach. Get published. Present at conferences. And get lucky enough to land a job that puts you on the national stage. Yes, there are plenty of people who build a successful consulting business more quickly, but I’m not one of them, and I can’t offer you advice on how to do it.