Initial Publication Date: February 24, 2009

Assessment of Academic Programs: Some Observations

Darrell Henry, Department of Geology and Geophysics, Louisiana State University

My perspective on assessment of geology programs has shifted to a more institutional view over the last few years. LSU, like many other universities and colleges, was found to be lacking in their approach to the assessment of student learning, not only in geology, but throughout all academic units. As a consequence, our regional accreditation group, Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS), has indicated that the institution must be proactive about assessment of student learning outcomes in all degree programs and all general education courses.

The university responded in a multi-step approach. In 2004, after SACS did the10-year accreditation evaluation of the university there were specific issues that they wanted to have addressed. After several iterations, LSU presented a web-based assessment matrix of the learning objectives, assessment processes and use of results for all academic units in 2006 with the promise that biennial reports on assessment of learning outcomes degree programs and general education courses be furnished starting in 2008. The University Assessment Council (UAC), primarily a group of faculty and Vice Provost for Academic Affairs, was tasked with the evaluation of the entries. I became Chair of the UAC in 2007 and have been meeting with faculty groups to discuss issues of degree program assessment and assessment of gen ed courses. This effort was greatly accelerated at the end of 2008 and 2009 with the goal of carefully examining the assessment procedures used for degree programs and for the >300 gen ed courses. From this experience, I have learned a few things about university-level assessment.

  1. Faculty interfacing with the upper administration is critical. The UAC serves as this interface, and the common wisdom and longer vision of this faculty group can put a perspective of what may or may not work with the general faculty at large.
  2. Sitting down and talking with chairs and assessments coordinator of academic units generally alleviates much of the concern and generally leads to a workable assessment plan for the unit. The Director of the Office of Assessment and Evaluation, an OAE staff member and a subcommittee of the UAC (including me) has met with a large proportion of the academic units to talk about what they already do and how assessment procedures can be extracted or easily implemented. With any assessment plan, it should be useful to the unit for internal assessment and not just an added paperwork burden.
  3. The assessment of student learning objectives should be directly tied in with programmatic assessment. Too often there is a disconnect between these topics, and this becomes most obvious during the accreditation review process.
  4. In a given unit, as many faculty as possible should be invested in the assessment process. In our initial review of the biennial report documents, it became obvious that a single faculty member generated the report (Department Chair, Assessment Coordinator, or even an instructor). This process should involve the faculty as a whole.
  5. A holistic view of a given unit should involve both direct and indirect assessment of student learning. Most units are accustomed to indirect assessment through instruments such as surveys of students and employers or interviews. Direct assessment can be more of a challenge (see below).

There are a number of useful topics addressed by SACS documents. The following is taken from Strategies for Direct and Indirect Assessment of Student Learning by Mary J. Allen in the SACS 2008 Annual Meeting:

"Two basic ways to assess student learning:

  1. Direct – The assessment based on an analysis of student behaviors or products in which they demonstrate how well they have mastered learning outcomes
  2. Indirect – The assessment is based on an analysis of reported perceptions about student mastery of learning outcomes.

Properties of Good Assessment Techniques

  • Valid – directly reflects the learning outcome being assessed
  • Reliable – especially inter-rater reliability when subjective judgments are made
  • Actionable – results help faculty identify what students are learning well and what requires more attention
  • Efficient and cost-effective in time and money
  • Engaging to students and other respondents – so they will demonstrate the extent of their learning
  • Interesting to faculty and other stakeholders – they casr aboutg the results and are willing to act on them
  • Triangulation – multiple lines of evidence point to the same conclusion

Strategies for Direct Assessment of Student Learning

  1. Published tests
  2. Locally-developed tests
  3. Embedded assignments and course activities
  4. Portfolios
  5. Collective portfolios

Strategies for Indirect Assessment of Student Learning

  1. Surveys
  2. Interviews
  3. Focus groups"