An emerging trend over the last five years ago has been higher education’s increased emphasis on “assessment.” What I have in mind is not the assessment of students and the assignment of grades, but instead the evaluation of courses, departments, academic programs, and institutions.
The general strategy is to develop “best practices” and “learning outcomes” for courses, departments, programs, and institutions, and then attempt to determine whether colleges and universities succeed in conforming to these practices and bringing about these learning outcomes. Often there is a focus on writing up formal best practice norms and learning goals, and on devising strategies to implement these practices and align learning goals across departments, programs, and institutions. Through student performance assessments, exit surveys, and alumni surveys, schools can collect data that can be used for institutional evaluation and strategic planning.
I tend to think that there is value in thinking about a program’s practical norms and learning goals, and also considering such norms and learning outcomes when putting together my course syllabi. Certainly it is important for decision-making about course offerings and program design to be norm-driven and data-driven to some extent.
However, this growing, and verging on obsessive, emphasis on assessment worries me.
First, I wonder whether schools are overdoing things and devoting unnecessary resources. Many schools have offices of assessment and have created new positions for directors and staff to work in these offices. Were schools really struggling to design high-quality academic programs and teach students something worthwhile thirty years ago, before such offices existed? I doubt it. In a time when budgets are tight, it appears that schools are finding reasons to hire new administrators while at the same time eliminating lines for new faculty hires.
Second, there is something about assessment that reminds me, depressingly, of “No Child Left Behind.” There is an awful lot of talk about “practices,”“outcomes,” “rubrics,” and “data,” and a whole lot of paper that needs to be pushed around in order to make these assessments. It’s as if professors suddenly have to do miles and miles of extra legwork to justify their existence as educators and prove that what they are doing in their classrooms is helping students to achieve learning outcomes A, B, and C by means of best practices D, E, and F. I suspect that this is because ALL educators have begun to be viewed with suspicion, and also because getting a college degree has become so expensive. We need to provide practical codes and data that prove to the world that we truly are providing something worthwhile—ideally something connected to students’ getting jobs that make them The Big Bucks, or at least The Semi-Big Bucks.
Third, all this talk of learning outcomes downplays and even undermines the importance of those aspects of teaching and learning that are basically impossible to measure through performance assessments and rubrics. What I have in mind are things like creativity, personal growth, empathy, perspective-taking, intellectual risk-taking, intellectual curiosity, and integrity. For some and even for many students, it takes many years for the full impact of a good college education to take effect. More than that, I strongly believe that real philosophy, in particular, has authentic benefits—and I don’t mean more Bucks—and rational human meanings that are impossible to capture and measure in noose-like best practice codes or mind-numbing data sets.