Wednesday, October 26, 2011

I like your blog a lot, but can you tell me what a SAC is?

I got an email from someone within the California higher ed system with that line in it. So I tried to tell him....

Every instructor who teaches credit courses at PCC is a member of a SAC, I said to him. The SAC is made up of all the teachers who teach the same kinds of classes.

After a bit, he replied something like:

"So all the teachers in a given discipline get together to make decisions about their field, regardless of their address. Is that it?"

I would have liked to say "yes" to that question.....But I have learned, from these three years talking assessment wide and far across the district, that quite a few of our faculty members don't know that they are part of a SAC. Just like my e-mail correspondent, they don't know what a SAC is. He's from California, though. These are PCC teachers who don't know what a SAC is.... even though they are part of one!

Are you one of the faculty who don't know what a SAC is?
Or are you one of the faculty who don't know that many PCC faculty don't know what a SAC is?

First, with the acronym: Subject Area Committee.

PCC is a multi-campus college. Each campus has departments, with department chairs, deans, and a campus president (among many other important people). But the departments are typically not discipline-specific. For example, in my department at Cascade, there is one dept chair who hires, assigns classes to, and evaluates instructors in:

political science

(I think he must get tired.)

But within PCC, curriculum decisions (among others) are supposed to be made by the curriculum experts, and those are the instructors in a particular subject-area, from all the different campuses, all across the district -- like all the history teachers, or writing teachers, or microelectronic engineering teachers.

Voila! All the instructors who teach in a particular subject area are members of that Subject Area Committee.

SAC participation is mandatory for full-time instructors. But I have discovered a wide variation among SAC practices regarding part-time faculty. In some SACs, invitations are extended to PT instructors, and there is a clear welcome mat put out. (Usually, SAC chairs rotate among FT faculty, and this can vary by the rotation of the chair in a particular SAC.) In some SACs, invitations are extended to PT instructors, but there is not much outreach. In some SACs, invitations are not extended, and there is little to no consternation over low attendance rates. Some full-time faculty think it just isn't fair to ask PT teachers to engage in SAC work, given the pay inequity -- it would be further exploitation of over-worked adjuncts, they say. Some FT teachers say that, if all the part-time teachers in their discipline came to the SAC meetings, they would out number the full-timers by quite a bit. If they come, should they be allowed to vote? After all, it is the FT faculty who have ultimate responsibility for SAC work, not PTers.

Here's the problem, from my point of view. Program or discipline assessment is different from assessing individual students' learning. It is different from measuring the effectiveness of an individual teacher. Program assessment asks each SAC to ask the question, "How are we doing?"

To ask that question, there has to be a "we" -- and we need to know who the "we" includes.

For purposes of program/discipline assessment, adjunct faculty are part of the "we." At PCC, at the recommendation of faculty, program assessment is to be done by faculty, within the institutional structure of the SAC. If the SAC isn't inclusive -- if fewer than half of the SAC members even know there is a SAC -- the program assessment is not going to be adequate to assess the program.

Do you know who is part of your "we"?

I am posting this edition of Assessing PCC on the in-service day set aside for SAC meetings....
And I am asking you to consider who attended your Subject Area Committee meeting, and who was absent.
How many members of your "we" were there? Are you a member of a "we" that you don't even know about?

And what are you going to do about that...?

-- Shirlee

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

More effective, more satisfying, and less isolated teaching...

by Shirlee Geiger, chair faculty Learning Assessment Council 2011-12

Suppose there was a way to become a more effective teacher, to make every class you teach more satisfying and enjoyable to you -- in addition to being more effective for the students -- and to end the feeling of isolation that is commonly reported by teachers. Would you do it?

The New Yorker from Oct 3 has one of those long, fascinating articles they often publish. All these benefits to educators are listed in the 4th full page of the piece (page 49). My partner pointed the essay out to me, saying it was relevant to the work of the Learning Assessment Council at PCC. Since the assessment work has taken over my life, I sat myself on down and read the essay.

The essay is by Atul Gawande, who has gotten quite famous of late writing about common-sense ways to improve patient outcomes in medicine. (He is the son of my aunt's doctor in Ohio, so I have heard about him for a while now.) The pressures on medical practice in the U.S. provide a striking parallel to the the pressures on higher ed -- how to get better outcomes, while increasing access, and all at lower costs. One of the common responses to these pressures in both fields is to assess outcomes in order to identify practices that work best, and then roll those out in order to increase both effectiveness and efficiency.

Dr. Gawande is writing about the benefits of coaching. He enlisted a tennis coach, sort of by accident, who in just minutes was able to show him how to increase the speed of his serve by 10 mph. After that, Gawande wondered if coaching might help him improve his surgical outcomes in the same way it improved his tennis game. (As a competitive fellow, Dr. Gawande had been comparing his medical outcomes to the national statistics for a variety of procedures, and discovered that he had plateaued as a surgeon -- while still beating the national average, he was no longer increasing the rate by which he was beating them.) (Please note that assessment of outcomes is the whole back story here!)

He followed up his curiosity by engaging a surgical coach. And he got better.

It is the middle of his essay, however, that is devoted to coaching in the education world. It is almost like Gawande had heard about Critical Friends Groups -- which are starting to form at PCC right now. The parallels between medical coaching and the Critical Friends Groups are what my partner had spotted when recommending the essay to me. 14 faculty and APs from PCC were trained as coaches this past summer in the Critical Friends techniques.

If you join one of our CFG groups, what can you expect? Well, Gawande quotes a veteran teacher at length, talking about her experience. Here is some stuff from page 49:

Elite performers, researches say, must engage in "deliberate practice" -- sustained, mindful efforts to develop the full range of abilities that success requires. You have to work at what you're not good at. In theory, people can do this themselves. But most people do not know where to start or how to proceed. Expertise, as the formula goes, requires going from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence to conscious competence and finally to unconscious competence. The coach provides outside eyes and ears, and makes you aware of where you're falling short.... [this is] discomfiting information to convey, and [it must be done] directly but respectfully.

[A teacher was asked if she liked the coaching she received.] "I do," she said. "It works with my personality." [....] She told me that she had begun to burn out. "I felt really isolated, too." Coaching had changed that. "My stress level is a lot less now." That might have been the best news for the students. They kept a great teacher, and saw her get better. "The coaching has definitely changed how satisfying teaching is."

In the Critical Friends Groups, all participants take turns as both coaches and coached. This is different than the model Dr. Gawande describes in his essay. But in other ways, the idea is the same. The groups foster the kind of respect and trust needed to be willing to talk about not just your strengths as a teacher, but the areas where you can improve. The Critical Friends technique is nationally recognized, and is one of several similar initiatives that have been developed in the past decade based on this idea of professional development. It was selected by the Learning Assessment Council as the best fit with PCC and our work together.

Now the question is:

Who wouldn't want work that is more satisfying, more effective, and less lonely?

Do you want to be the best teacher you can be? Join a Critical Friends Group. For more information, contact Sally Earll at 971-722-7812or

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

PCC Technology Woes!

Shirlee Geiger is the current chair of the faculty Learning Assessment Council

The Fall term started with some serious technology issues at PCC. Email and phone communication were slowed, and occasionally did not function at all. The problems highlighted how much we have all come to depend on instant connection and contact. Some students would ask me, at the start of a class, if I got their emails. (The answer was usually, "No!") Their communications were routine and mundane -- about having to come late to class or leave early, or a question about a course requirement that hadn't been cleared up in the face-to-face session. These conversations got me to thinking about how email and voice mail have changed the nature of teacher-student relationships. I know that as an undergraduate (lots of decades ago!), I didn't expect access to my college instructors. I guess I vaguely knew they had offices, but I did not seek them out. I would watch some students try to sneak in quick one-on-one conversations with a teacher before or after class, but to me it always seemed sort of rude or intrusive. If the teachers had phones, I sure didn't know the numbers...And departments had secretaries way back then, who answered department and instructor phones and either passed calls through or took messages. I don't know that there was even a way to dial a teacher directly....All this meant that teachers were distant, to my mind, not exactly people. But I knew that they knew a lot of things. Because of that, I was sort of afraid of them.

I don't think distant, fear-laced relationships are optimal for teaching or learning, but it was what we had back then. I am guessing that, had I been able to call a teacher, or dash off an email, it would have made a difference in my attitude as a student. I think it would have helped....

Now students are used to sending off a quick email, and often expect a fast response. I put my phone number on my syllabus, and encourage people to use it... and they do! I feel, as a teacher, much more approachable than my teachers were to me. Things have changed. It didn't happen fast, but incremental changes have added up to expectations of routine contact between teachers and students, outside of classrooms. It has changed the profession of teaching -- how instructors allocate their time, and what a typical daily workload looks like.

This year, I am thinking that a similar thing is happening with program and institutional assessment. Lots of small changes -- in attitude, expectation, and routine -- are starting to add up. Assessment is now where email was a decade ago.... installed in our SACs, beginning to be used, but only starting to get embedded in our day-to-day work life. But I think a time is coming when we routinely will ask for the data. How did that change in instruction/curriculum/prerequisites/degree requirements affect student learning? We will want to measure, so that we can track the difference our innovations make....And we will look back and ask how we ever got by without our metrics....

Our accrediting agency, NWCCU, has noticed the changes at PCC, and is satisfied that we have "hastened our progress" to routinely use assessment of student learning to improve instruction and learning. Thanks are due to many, many PCC community members who stepped up to the new demands of the "accountability movement," and began devising and implementing ways to tell if we are making the difference in student lives that we are promising. To see some exemplary SAC assessment reports, go to

I am wishing the Tech people here at PCC well as they try to figure out the problems. There is no going back now -- not to the days before email, or to the days before assessment.