Higher Learning Commission

2015 Collection of Papers

Facing our Worst Fear-Assessment, Success Funding, and Selling Out

Gina Kamwithi

Introduction

In one passage of Herodotus’ Histories, a servant of Periander of Corinth trails behind the Milesian tyrant Thrasybulus, seeking counsel on how his master might rule his city safely. As he follows behind, the servant is given no counsel but watches as Thrasybulus slices the tops of the choicest of grains in his field. With no further interaction Thrasybulus enters the palace, leaving the servant alone and confused. Upon return to Corinth, the confused servant relates the exchange to Periander. The message, though obscure to the servant, is quite clear to Periander—to rule unopposed you must “slay those of your citizens who are outstanding in influence or ability” (Godly 1921).

The above parable may seem extreme when discussing assessment, accreditation and success funding for higher education; however, the fear of being silenced by whatever means is at the heart of the issue for faculty. Traditionally, when American policy makers have been faced with decisions involving great complexity, they have sought assistance from the intelligentsia of the society (Diener 1986). In 21st America, Thrasybulus’ literal intellectual cleansing is not a specter on the horizon, but the fears of political control that could lead to the same end are very real. It follows, then, that any action on the part of accreditors—whom faculty may suspect are unduly influenced by federal Department of Education guidelines, which seems to be an intrusion into the sacred realm of the classroom—may be construed by a faculty member as a slippery slope to the ultimate loss of academic control.

Many administrators attribute resistance to assessment activities as faculty fears of “being found out,” laziness or pure obstinacy (Johnson 2014). This may very well be the case for some faculty members, but for many it is the best in them that resists this control. The motivations for resistance are many and complex and must be addressed as such.

Finding Common Ground

Despite the belief by some faculty members that administrators are eager to sell academic integrity for fiscal survival, most administrators would be as mortified as their faculty colleagues to be associated with an institution that inflates success purely for monetary gain or even institutional survival. Many of us who have taken positions of authority did not do so to be involved with a subpar product. In our own way we are just as zealous as our faculty; however, we do not have the luxury of overlooking the fiscal survival of the institution. If higher education administrators and faculty are indeed the intelligentsia of our society, we should be able to navigate this terrain together for the good of our students and for the ultimate improvement of our entire higher education system.

Success Funding in Ohio

In fall 2012, Ohio’s public college presidents gathered together to develop a set of funding recommendations to encourage innovation and student success within the University System of Ohio. Thankfully, the proposed funding model was not, as many feared, a simplistic allocation system that favored competitive entrance institutions over open access institutions. However, the subsequent expansion of this funding model to 100 percent of public colleges’ state share of instruction will undoubtedly have significant culture-changing power. Whether this change promotes the hoped-for innovation or erodes academic integrity is yet to be seen (Humphreys 2012).

Leveraging Assessment to Protect Academic Integrity

Plainly speaking, assessment of student learning at its best is proof of the value added by higher education and a self-checking system whereby each faculty member can improve what he or she does in the classroom, semester after semester. At worst, it is the measurement of nothing for no one that is meaningless and costs careers. Thus it behooves all of us to strain our creative resources to “get it right.”

Creating a Simple Replicable System with Widespread Faculty Buy-in

What does “getting it right” look like? At North Central State College, it has taken us many years to get it right, and frankly our approach is not always right. However, we have found a few key leverage points that, if managed correctly, will yield results for integrity. These leverage points, which are explained below, are clarity, simplicity, highest-level accountability, meaning, and focus.

North Central State’s Story

We began our project in summer 2013, a year after we transitioned from quarters to semesters. A new Faculty Assessment chair was installed and an administrator was assigned to guide that faculty member. It was decided that the college would discard the old assessment program and begin anew. The guiding motto was “simplicity, clarity, focus.” In August 2013, the first convocation with all faculty members was spent setting the stage for the sweeping changes. The chief academic officer (CAO) of the college addressed previous failed efforts and drew from faculty members their perceptions of why those efforts had failed. True to what we had surmised, the faculty identified the same issues our small think tank (the CAO, Academic Services director and the new Faculty Assessment chair) had identified as the points of failure. Before the convocation, this small think tank had created a plan to address all of the failure points. Thus, in the first weeks of fall semester, our assessment team, along with deans, assistant deans and the CAO, were ready to lead all faculty members into the new model. Our goal in the beginning of our project was 100 percent faculty participation with assessment around both our college-wide outcomes and each of the program-identified outcomes. However, to reach 100 percent participation, we had to start training at the most fundamental level.

To start the process, we completed the following activities during the fall semester. We asked all programs to submit new program outcomes to the CAO. They were to review their old outcomes and research similar programs across the country. We provided faculty and deans with links to resources specific to their programs. At the same time, we asked faculty to launch one of the Association of American Colleges and Universities’ (AAC&U) six VALUE rubrics in one assignment, in one class, for the fall semester.

By the end of fall semester, all but a few programs had submitted new program outcomes, and all but three faculty members had launched the VALUE rubrics. Those programs and faculty members who had not followed through received a visit of encouragement from the CAO. This was not meant as punishment but was conducted merely to highlight the importance of the activities and help us ascertain where our processes/training might have failed. This top-level commitment was an essential leverage point for the success of this project.

The Academic Services Office then gave each program an Excel sheet with its program outcomes at the top and its course outcomes from its syllabi listed in the left column. During the spring semester, faculty members placed an X next to each course outcome that fed into their overall program outcomes; this was the guide for change. What transpired at spring convocation and following was beyond our expectations. The true discussion of outcomes and assessment unfolded before our eyes. Since that time, programs have been reworked and brought before the curriculum committee, data has been collected, participation has soared and faculty input has been priceless.

Barriers to Leveraging Assessment

The barriers we faced in leveraging assessment to maintain integrity in the face of success funding pressures centered mostly on inadequate technology to gather data, a complicated understanding of how to gather data, what to do with data once it is collected, and faculty members’ fear that despite assurances assessment would be used as a punitive tool. Our team of three agreed that we would use our combined resources to create a simple, focused, clear system of gathering data and resist all temptations to increase the complexity while launching the system. There were many temptations to increase complexity once the ideas were submitted to the assessment committee. Understandably, each committee member had his or her own idea of what effective assessment would entail. We established a mantra between the three of us when communicating—“simple, focused, clear.” In all of our interactions, we have emphasized that complexity will come and be taken into consideration once the core concepts are completely understood. But currently we are teaching faculty members the fundamental concepts that will be expanded in coming years. Without a clear, strong and focused foundation, assessment at North Central State will fall apart. As many who have attempted this type of culture change know, even the addition of one variable to the system can confuse an already overworked and frustrated faculty member and reduce participation.

Meaning and Buy-in

Most important, to link assessment with integrity we have highlighted the meaningfulness of data gathered and nonduplication of effort. We have gained buy-in through encouraging meaningful data collection. If the data collected is not helping a faculty member gain a clearer picture of how he or she might improve interactions with students and students’ engagement with learning, it should not be done. If we as the assessment committee and the Academic Services Office request data collection that faculty truly cannot use, we have shown a commitment to change our focus. In addition, the responsibility of helping faculty use data and learn effective assessment skills is seated in the Academic Services Office. Thus, college-wide meetings with the CAO and faculty are centered on faculty engaging with one another around the topic of the scholarship of teaching and learning and how best to assess student outcomes. We do not expect the faculty to completely teach themselves these skills, and we now offer in-service days to facilitate cross-divisional conversations and creative engagement with assessment.

Conclusion

This short essay began with a dramatic parable to highlight faculty fears in relation to assessment, success funding and an increasing intrusion into the higher education classroom. With the growing momentum of success funding (National Conference of State Legislatures 2015), faculty members—especially those who serve in open-access institutions—are quite fearful of the erosion of integrity in the face of “graduation quotas.” Meaningful assessment is the counterpoint to superficial judgments and in the long run will be our best defense against the erosion of academic integrity.

References

Diener, T. 1986. Growth of an American invention: A documentary history of the junior and community college movement. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986.

Gilbert, G. 2010. Making faculty count in higher education assessment. Academe 96 (5). http://www.aaup.org/article/making-faculty-count-higher-education-assessment#.VLlpuFqk_ts.

Godly, A. 1921. Herodotus: With an English Translation by A.D. Godley. New York: Putnam and Sons.

Humphreys, D. 2012. What’s wrong with the completion agenda—and what we can do about it. Liberal Education 98 (1): 8–17. https://www.aacu.org/publications-research/periodicals/whats-wrong-completion-agenda—and-what-we-can-do-about-it—and-what-we-can-do-about-it.

Hutchings, P. 2010. Opening doors to faculty involvement in assessment. New York: National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Johnson, J. A. 2014. On assessing student learning, faculty are not the enemy. Inside Higher Ed, November 17. https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2014/11/07/administrators-should-work-faculty-assess-learning-right-way-essay.

National Conference of State Legislatures. 2015. Performance-based funding for higher education. NCSL.org. http://www.ncsl.org/research/education/performance-funding.aspx.

Rouseff-Baker, F., and A. Holm, A. 2004. Engaging faculty and students in classroom assessment of learning. New Directions for Community Colleges 2004 (126): 29–42.

Schlitz, S. A., M. O’Connor, Y. Pang, D. Stryker, S. Markell, E. Krupp, C. Byers, S. D. Jones, and A. K. Redfern. 2009. Developing a culture of assessment through a faculty learning Community: A case study. International Journal of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education 21 (1): 133–147.

 

 

About the Authors

Gina Kamwithi is Academic Services Director at North Central State College in Mansfield, Ohio.

Copyright © 2017 - Higher Learning Commission

NOTE: The papers included in this collection offer the viewpoints of their authors. HLC recommends them for study and for the advice they contain, but they do not represent official HLC directions, rules or policies.


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