Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Martha Bailey: TLC co-ordinator's point of veiw

Assessment as Professional Development

According to some philosophers, all of us are ethical egoists, and we only choose to act when an action is to our benefit. While I do not hold to that as the best explanation for ethical behavior, I think the theory provides a useful position from which to discuss learning assessment with PCC faculty. We do many things as faculty because we are told they are part of the job: writing syllabi, conducting classes, grading—oh, yes—we have other motivations, too, but sometimes it just comes down to: I have to do this. Learning assessment, particularly at the program level, comes with that kind of mandate, as well as some extrinsic motivations: do this, and do it well, or we could lose accreditation, and that has more than a little impact on a community college like PCC.


But, what if we take the egoist’s view and ask, “What’s in it for me (besides keeping my job, and helping students advance)?” Where do we find the personal part of assessment of learning? I want to suggest that, at least in part, the answer is this gives us a tool for professional development. But before I pursue that idea, I want to acknowledge a position raised in a comment on last week’s blog. Jayabrush wrote “These discussions have in larger part been ones about sovereignty, and worthwhile ones, I might add. But I wonder if we need to have a more frank recognition that underneath all these discussions is a base fear, teachers' fear that if they are observed and found to "not teach well" then they might be fired instead of given an opportunity to improve.”


A similar fear was raised in an earlier posting, too. Both comments note that there is a real risk if the only use of assessment of the individual faculty member’s work is punitive. And it does happen, particularly for part-time faculty. Once a person is hired, outside of egregious actions, he or she will continue to be given classes, because department chairs need to fill teaching slots. In the last (I’m not sure how many) years, the level of evaluation of teaching performance by these instructors has been minimal—until an instructor applies for assignment rights, that key to access to staff development funds and other opportunities. Once this is done, if the instructor is denied such rights (and that does happen), the person can no longer teach at PCC, at least in that subject area. I’ve seen this happen to instructors who had taught for years, but never applied for the rights. So, of course, these new moves to assessment can appear to be another punitive move.


But there is another way to view assessment, and one that might even address the fears. An aside here: while the mandated assessment for accreditation is at the program level, and is not intended to single out a particular instructor, it is possible that, over time, one instructor’s classes may be deemed to be less successful than those of other instructors. If that happens, I would advocate moving the person into a plan similar to the one I am about to describe. But if assessment is considered an avenue for becoming as effective instructor as I can be, then I no longer need to fear it, though it probably will be uncomfortable at times. And if I can control when and how the assessment happens (not waiting until it is demanded), and even recruit help from my choice of allies, then assessment becomes a tool for both student learning and for faculty learning: assessment becomes a two-way street (the last phrase I have borrowed from a TLC brain-storming session on assessment, and I don’t recall who came up with the phrase).


What I mean is that we use assessment of various forms in the classroom to determine whether students are learning. And formative assessment, in particular, is designed to help both students and faculty see where student are succeeding, and where they need more work. But it can do the same for faculty: if students aren’t “getting it”, they often will offer suggestions of ways to help them. Not all of that feedback will be equally useful: some is worthless, while other pieces are absolute gems of insight.


The most useful level for assessing for professional development, then, is the classroom level, and not just toward the end of a class (the traditional student evaluation). It would be nice to be able to use longer-term, post-graduation assessment as well, but at the moment that isn’t practical. Rather, for the best possible interactive assessment and improvement throughout a course, there needs to be assessment planned by the instructor, and assessment offered by the students spontaneously. The class must be structured and carried out in an open and welcoming manner for the latter to be offered. For either these to be of any benefit toward professional development, the instructor does have to be willing to take the feedback as encouragement to improve and not simply as criticism. Someone who can work with student feedback, differentiating between the feedback of value and that offered with other intent, and who becomes a better instructor, will be able to approach evaluations by administrators with much greater confidence.


What continuous formative assessment in the classroom means will obviously vary with the course being assessed, since there are many types of courses offered at PCC. But the idea, and one that doesn’t need to add to the instructor’s time burden in the way Phil Seder described in his posting, is to regularly do small assessments of what is happening in class, and make course corrections along the way. Now, sometimes the needed course correction will be one that cannot be applied until the next time the course is taught—if my major assignment needs work, I’m not going to fix it for students this time around. But if I get feedback as we are going through, I can note that and include it in my course development, rather than having it come later as another task (this is something like the course development feedback loop Peter Seaman discussed).


The other piece here is that students will not only speak of course content and materials: sometimes they address aspects of course delivery, that is, issues related to the instructor directly. This offers the biggest opportunity for professional development—to work on me and my skills. And if this is coming continually, then when I see an opportunity coming up to learn in a given area where I am weak, I can jump on it. And, yes, it may mean the students get fewer comments on a piece of work, but if it leads to me being a more effective instructor overall, that benefits greatly outweighs the small harm.


Now, some might say that I am writing a piece such as this blog for egoistical reasons: after all, I do coordinate the TLC (Teaching Learning Center) at Cascade, and we do offer some of those sessions you might come to for improvement as an instructor. And I won’t deny that is somewhat true. But part of what I have learned as a TLC coordinator is that students benefit (learn more) when faculty continue to develop their skills; students may learn from less-skilled instructors, however, they truly appreciate getting to “study with” a highly-effective teacher. If we can let the students assess us even as we assess them, then learning truly does become “everyone’s business.”

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