Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bragging about Westminster

I have tried to keep editorializing about Westminster College in the background of this blog. So while I've referred to lots of things going on here, I haven't tried to make the case that Westminster is unusual or wonderful (though in many ways it is).

But this article, reporting views on assessment and learning in higher ed held by national policy wonks, makes me want to brag a bit. They argue that while good assessment practice is pretty well understood, it tends to be isolated, a department here or there doing good work, and its findings hidden from the public. And they pine for the day when clear outcomes (preferably national) and transparency bring about a major shift in higher ed and graduation rates. Absent these things, we can never have real accountability in education, they argue.

Their doubts about assessment's progress may describe many places, but Westminster isn't one of them. The college established learning goals for all students 6 years ago. All academic and co-curricular programs now connect their activities to the learning goals, report each year on their progress, and revise their activities in response to findings.

The college tracks all sorts of institution-wide data, using NSSE, the CLA, and a range of in-house surveys. These data, and those gathered in programs, are analyzed by campus leaders twice a year, each time in an effort to find areas for improvement. Our NSSE data are posted publicly on our website. We also track all first-year students, and closely watch retention rates over time.

We are now setting up an e-portfolio program which, if it is entirely implemented, would ask each undergraduate student to complete an e-portfolio for graduation. The portfolio would allow students to see their own growth and achievement of learning goals over time. And it would allow us to certify that all our students achieve the goals.

So in all sorts of ways Westminster follows best practices. We use national and internal standards to measure ourselves. We tie curriculum and co-curriculum to learning goals. We revise our programs in response to data. And we are working to ensure that all students who graduate from Westminster get a meaningful education based in best practices and our own culture.

These efforts have brought about enormous good on campus. The language of learning is now common. Key faculty lead the assessment effort. Students are familiar with the learning goals and are increasingly committed to achieving them. And having a set of campus-wide outcomes allows us to discuss ways to rethink education to have an ever-greater focus on learning and an ever-smaller cost.

At the same time, our outcomes, learning, and assessment efforts are no panacea. Many courses are still teacher-, not learner-driven. We are often buried in data. Just as often we make changes in response to relatively small shifts in NSSE or other data. And perhaps most importantly, with all of our efforts, we still don't retain more than 79% of our students from the first to the second year. And of the students we retain, many graduate with a credential, not an education.

These two things--our retention rate and the characteristics of our graduates--suggest to me that the next frontier for assessment has little to do with what the college does. (After all, this sort of college and program-focused assessment grows out of an input-based model, one that undergirds the instruction paradigm.) Instead, it must be focused on what students bring to their learning. What are their motivations? Their strengths? Their desires? The obstacles to achieving their goals and ours?

Absent these sorts of data, the best assessment is incomplete. And accountability cannot be fairly parcelled out--a portion to the college, a portion to its employees, and a portion to the most important participants in education--the students.

No comments: