Getting started with transformative assessment university-wide

Moving a university from a compliance mode of accreditation assessment to a transformative mode is a complex task, yet it is the task brought on by changing requirements of accrediting bodies. To get there, the university (viewed as a collection of learners) needs some scaffolding and some easy place to get started.

Background to the problem

Washington State University is accredited by the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities (NWCCU). The NWCCU is engaged in a process to review its standards. The process includes drafting some new standards and converting the review from a decennial calendar to a new septennial review schedule and adding a new catalog of types of reports that institutions must produce.

Regarding these new standards, NWCCU says:

“Standard Three requires evidence of strategic institutional planning that guides planning for the institution as a whole as well as planning for its core themes. Much like the current accreditation model, Standard Four requires assessment of effectiveness and use of results for improvement. However, unlike the current accreditation model, assessments are conducted with respect to the institution’s core themes, rather than its major functions.” [emphasis added]

It goes on to say:

“Goals and intended outcomes, with assessable indicators of achievement, are identified and published for [the institution’s] mission and for each of [its] core themes…

“A core theme is a major concentration, focus, or area of emphasis within the institution’s mission. Examples include, but are not limited to: Developmental education; workforce preparation; lower division transfer education; baccalaureate education; graduate preparation for professional practice; graduate preparation for scholarship and research; service; spiritual formation; student life; preservation of values and culture; personal enrichment; continuing education; academic scholarship; and research to discover, expand, or apply knowledge.”

We can assume that WSU will develop several core themes related to student learning, such as “undergraduate preparation for advanced study and professional careers” and “graduate and professional preparation for scholarship and research.”

NWCCU’s calendar would appear to require the University to provide a Year 1 report in 2011 that answers these points:

Section II: Core Themes

For each Core Theme: [Maximum of three (3) pages per theme]

a. Descriptive Title
b. Goals or Intended Outcomes for the Core Theme
c. Indicators of Achievement of the Core Theme’s Goals or Intended Outcomes
d. Rationale as to Why the Indicators are Assessable and Meaningful Measures of Achievement of the Core Theme’s Goals or Intended Outcomes

For the WSU core themes tied to student learning outcomes, the university will need assessments conducted with respect to the goals of its themes – implemented in ways that can be “rolled up” from program to college to university levels. WSU may elect to use something like its Six Learning Goals as the intended outcomes for its core themes that deal with student learning.

The Problem Statement

The challenge is to help programs move toward having and using indicators of achievement of WSU’s chosen outcomes, and to do so in a way that helps programs and colleges use the data to improve, rather than just performing a compliance activity (that is, developing a transformative approach to their assessment). The further challenge is to accomplish this in a resource-constrained environment.

Theron and I have been looking for a place that all ~100 undergraduate programs at WSU could start working toward meeting these requirements in time for a 2011 delivery date of a Year 1 report.

What we describe here is based around WSU’s goals, but the concept will likely work equally well for another campus with a different set of institutional learning goals

The Strategy

Figure 1 is our whiteboard of the concept. It starts with the idea of collecting sample assignments from each program (along with some metadata about each assignment) in order to provide feedback about the assignments to instructors and the program from their community of “critical friends.”  This process is intended to provide us baseline information. The baseline is in two forms: an assessment practice that programs can build on and data about the university’s teaching practices, such as the types of assignments used in programs and the kind of feedback (beyond grades) that the assignments can provide to learners, along with some demographics about the assignments. (If programs want to do something else, or something more, they can, see below.)

Figure 1. A brainstormed diagram of the kinds of metadata that would need to be collected with each assignment and the graphical analysis that could be done with the data.

Figure 1. A brainstormed diagram of the kinds of metadata that would need to be collected with each assignment and the graphical analysis that could be done with the data.

Here are some benefits that we see:

  • A simple message to communicate.

“Give us 3 assignments, we’ll help you get feedback to improve the assignments AND to meet NWCCU requirements”. (Provost to deans, deans to chairs, chairs to faculty, CTLT staff to WSU community. ) A simple message is less likely to get confused and become a “telephone game” nightmare.

  • A manageable and understandable process.

Every program has assignments. They are easily collected and can be assessed online using Harvesting techniques. Its not everything that might be included in program-level outcomes assessment, but it’s a starting point

  • Feedback from communities.

Specifically, communities important to faculty and instructors.

  • A common reference point.

With most programs doing the same thing, WSU can develop opportunities for shared models, resources and interdisciplinary partnerships.

  • Feedback from a broad range of stakeholders.

Assignments are artifacts that impact many people (downstream faculty, community, industry).  Those stakeholders can answer questions such as, “Does this assignment prepare students for your course? For your workplace? For life outside of the university? How would you improve it to meet your context?”

WSU’s Center for Teaching Learning and Technology has previously done work to map assignments to WSU’s Six Learning Goals using this proposed form (developed with the WSU Honors College): and in this case study with a academic program.

Or the mapping to WSU’s goals could be implemented more indirectly by scoring the assignment with WSU’s Critical and Integrating Thinking Rubric and then mapping the rubric to WSU’s six goals. If the program already has a rubric that is has been using, that rubric could be incorporated into the process and mapped to the WSU goals, see figure 2.

Figure 2.  Diagram of the mapping process from the Food Science rubric to the WSU Six goals and the the University of Idaho (UI) five goals. If the University changes its goals, the mapping can be readily changed, as illustrated by this joint WSU-UI program that is mapping its rubric to WSU's 6 goals and UI's 5 goals simultaneously.

Figure 2. Diagram of the mapping process from the Food Science rubric to the WSU Six goals and the the University of Idaho (UI) five goals. If the University changes its goals, the mapping can be readily changed, as illustrated by this joint WSU-UI program that is mapping its rubric to WSU's 6 goals and UI's 5 goals simultaneously.

The rating itself could be managed in a manner similar to the one we demonstrated to harvest feedback on an assignment, figure 3. Unlike that demonstration, in the pilot year of this proposed assessment plan, programs might only be asked  to provide sample assignments and not the associated student work. In subsequent years, programs may elect to use the full harvesting model, or may elect to use other assessments to provide triangulation to this approach.

Figure 3. Harvesting Feedback process gives results to the instructor (about the assignment) and to the program (about the assignments in aggregate and about the utility of the rubric used).

Figure 3. Harvesting Feedback process gives results to the instructor (about the assignment) and to the program (about the assignments in aggregate and about the utility of the rubric used).

Summary of the Process

1. Assessment for improving, not just proving:

  1. Academic programs deposit 3 sample assignments and fill in a form describing the courses where the assignments are given.
  2. The assignments are scored with a rubric (based on the WSU’s Goals, or the Critical Thinking Rubric, or a rubric that the program already uses to assess student work. The program can choose the rubric.) The program can help recruit the assessors from communities that have interest in the program’s success.
  3. The rubric is mapped to WSU’s chosen goals so the results can be rolled up from Program to College to University levels.
  4. Programs examine the feedback from the assessments, engage in conversations about it and choose action plans for the coming year; instructors can get specific feedback about their assignment to engage in SOTL or other process improvement.
  5. The whole process is assessed with a transformative assessment rubric to judge the quality of the assessment activity and suggest refinements in the assessment practice.

2. Or, if a program already has an assessment procedure (perhaps required by another accrediting body):

  1. The results of that assessment can be submitted, along with a mapping of the relevant data to WSU’s Goals.
  2. The assessment process is assessed, as above, to judge the quality of the assessment activity and to benchmark the program against all other WSU programs.

By using the Harvesting process to implement both the assessment of the assignment and the assessment of the assessments, it should be fairly simple to gather input about the program from a community that is relevant to, and interested in, the academic program’s success and to document the success of the assessment efforts.

Once programs have begun to engage in the discussions that we think these activities will trigger, they may elect to proceed in many directions that include: broadening the scope their assessment activities, refining the assignments or the criteria for assessing them, expanding the communities giving feedback, or assessing student work along with the assignments to gage how effective the assignments really are in impacting student learning.

Conclusion

We have proposed programs get started toward the new accreditation standards by harvesting assessments on their assignments, but this is not the only place to put a toe into the water. Syllabi or student work would be another place to start. Ultimately, we think programs should have direct measures of both student learning and faculty learning, and be able to talk about action plans related to improving that learning and/ or improving the assessment of that learning.

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