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What to Expect When You're Assessing

At some point in the academic year, departments assess the effectiveness of their methods and practices. The reasons for doing so are plain: assessments provide illustration—in silhouette—of our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to reaching students. The goal of these evaluative measures is to answer the difficult and at times impossible question: how well are our students meeting our learning outcomes? In business, of course, results can typically be quantified more easily —but in higher education, the scholarly accomplishments of a classroom don’t always translate into an organized Excel spreadsheet.

This tension—between perceived successes and tangible outcomes—is a source of great anxiety for instructors. Throughout my career as a part-time lecturer, I’ve felt a burdensome kind of pressure to verify my students’ achievements. At the same time, I fret that my colleagues and superiors will not be able to discern the immense progress my students have made when the time comes to assess their work.

Nevertheless, there are steps that can be taken to ensure a smooth assessment process and most of them derive from a simple mantra: Start early—and get on the same page as your department.

Learn How it Works:

Whenever I start teaching at a new institution, I immediately ask about assessment: how it is conducted and when. Only rarely, in the crowded packet of materials assembled for new hires, is there a thorough explanation of the assessment process. Rather than wait for instruction, I prefer to know what I’ll be asked to provide and when. It is always best to ask, as every college or university handles its department-wide evaluations differently. Some popular departmental assessment methods include:

  • Random Sampling
    Some departments will collect a random sampling of student work, across a variety of course sections, and evaluate how well these samples meet course expectations. These appraisals are later compiled into a report.
  • Dossier Review
    Others may require instructors to submit collected student work (with commentary and final grades) for a dossier review that also includes the syllabus and a few signature assignment descriptions.
  • Review Session
    Different schools may require part-time instructors to meet for a review session with senior faculty members. At this meeting, instructors furnish all student work and final grades for the entire semester. This, too, is compiled into a data report.

In understanding (and anticipating) the process, the sometimes onerous or stressful steps of gathering student work and/or tallying grades will be on your radar from the first day of the semester.

Use Programs to Collect Data

Across a wide variety of disciplines, departments are more and more frequently turning to online homework tools and classroom software as a means of streamlining classwork. McGraw-Hill Education programs like Connect (available for nearly all courses) and ALEKS (Math, Statistics, and Chemistry) allow instructors to create quizzes, tests, and reading assignments, thereby reducing the need for print textbooks and photocopied materials.

Leaning on these programs can not only simplify the process of instruction and grading but also integrate assignments with a school’s LMS system (Blackboard, Canvas, D2L, etc.) to help collect grades and data for future assessment. Instructors can therefore monitor student progress throughout the semester and access the same reports that will be assessed later on in the year. Using a program like Connect ensures that you’ll have an eye on your students’ “numbers” and can address any shocking deficits before assessment time comes.

Use the Rubric

If your department has implemented a standardized rubric, it’s a strong idea to keep it out while you grade anything. (Obviously, your coordinators will recommend this anyway, but as the stresses of the semester intensify, it can be tempting to cut corners.) Usually, rubrics build upon the language included in the departmental syllabus, clarifying how and why a student might fulfill course expectations.

For instructors anxious about being assessed, this can be enormously helpful in shaping both your commentary and the assigned grade (assuming that these are, in fact, part of your department’s assessment). Naturally, following the rubric will make sure that your grading aligns with the standards set forth on the syllabus, but it will also help focus your commentary on the skills and outcomes that are most meaningful to your department. In borrowing the language of the rubric, you may nudge your students to address problem areas that will later be evaluated, thereby aiding their success and yours.

Stress Process and Revision

As someone who has participated in numerous assessment projects over the years, I can honestly say that the least successful student samples are plainly written at the eleventh hour. While it may be tempting to blame the anonymous student for procrastinating, the responsibility often lies among those instructors who do not stress process or revision as integral parts of academic success.

Since departments often assess final papers or capstone projects as an indicator of growth, there is ample opportunity (throughout the semester) for instructors to guide the creative/research process. By requiring proposals, outlines, peer-reviews, annotated bibliographies, and successive drafts of their final project, we can directly influence the structure and academic rigor of our students’ final projects. When the time for assessment comes, we will not have to wonder about the shape or quality of whatever we submit—nor will we have to fret about “what the department thinks.” By starting early, we will have been on the same page as both our students and our superiors, eliminating any need for uncertainty or panic. 

About the Author

Professor Ray Dademo is an adjunct professor of English at Rutgers University, Montclair State University, and Middlesex County College. He holds an MFA in Nonfiction Writing from Columbia University and a BA in English from Fordham University. His pedagogy involves the use of cinematic literacy as an entry point for composition studies. He has recently co-authored an article for the CEA Critic, titled "Narrating the Moviegoing Experience: Reframing Film for First-Year Composition.

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