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Doing Assessment as if Deep Learning Matters Most: Assessing and Promoting High-Impact Practices

During his opening plenary, Dr. Thomas Angelo offered insights from a career in higher education assessment, “I was there at the beginning of assessment.  It began in about 1984 in the sense that we know it now.”  Angelo suggested that “the point of assessment is supposed to be, first, to improve the quality and, second, the efficiency of higher education.”  He went on to say that “after about ten years” of assessment “we were able to count on two hands the number of institutions that had made significant progress in assessment,” but he and the audience could not point to any evidence that assessment has improved the quality of higher education over the last 30 years. 

Angelo compared higher education assessment to Sisyphus, sentenced to roll a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again, day after day, year after year.  “In 2014, how many places can we name that have really succeeded, after 30 years, in measuring student learning, much less improving it?  The answer is ‘not many.’  Angelo went on to say, “We have programs that have assessed well, and we have small units, and we also have institutions that do this pretty well for a while before the rock rolls down the hill.  But it seems to roll back down again.”

“So one of the questions is, with all this effort, why haven’t we made more progress?  Why do we still seem to watch that rock roll down the hill every year?” Angelo asked. 

He went on to describe a cycle to which many in the audience could relate. “Here’s how assessment happens on most campuses.  About two years before the accreditation visit, people start looking for rocks they can push—or building a rock—and then everyone gets busy for a while.  So over the two years we run around and gather data and do a bunch of stuff.  And then about five minutes after the accrediting team leaves the campus, the rock starts to roll back down the hill.  And that’s, I think, a terrific waste of time and a crazy way to do things.  That’s one of the things that makes our colleagues cynical.  They see that that’s a game we’re playing and that it’s not actually leading to the kind of improvement or the kind of activity that we’re talking about.”

In Angelo’s opinion, the fatal flaw of most assessment efforts relates to the perception of assessment being a periodic performance for accreditors.  “One problem with assessment on most campuses is there’s a lot of distrust between the faculty and the administration.  Many faculty see assessment—sometimes with good reasons—as a way of controlling them or way to do them harm, or interfere with what they think academic freedom is.”  More to the point, Angelo stated, “I think without trust, no assessment effort will work well.” 

Angelo proposes that faculty and administrators identify shared values and build sustainable assessment practices based on those shared values.  He says, “On many campuses, we don’t design assessment carefully enough.  And it’s often because we’re in that big rush right before accreditation, so it’s understandable that we don’t.  But that leads us to do things that aren’t sustainable, or they go off track, or they aren’t very valuable.”  Angelo quotes his mentor at Harvard University, Richard Light, as saying, “You can’t fix by analysis what you bungle by design.”  Angelo appropriates the phrase and makes it his own, “You can’t fix by assessment what you bungle by design.”

A video of Dr. Thomas Angelo’s presentation is available: Doing Assessment as if Deep Learning Matters Most: Assessing and Promoting High-Impact Practices
Slides from the presentation
Handouts from the presentation