Linda Suskie

 A Common Sense Appr​oach to Assessment in Higher Education


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.

Categories: Musings & meanderings, Assessment culture