Try Avoiding The “A” Word

With growing attention being paid to higher education accountability at the national level as evidenced by the recent final report of the U.S Commission on Higher Education, our institutions are increasingly focused on building a variety of assessment methods into the curriculum. Of course, accomplishing effective assessment across the institution is easier said than done. There are no sure-fire or easy ways to get the job done, and it often is met with resistance at different levels across the institution. Academic librarians are aware of the need for assessment, and as a profession we have made some significant contributions to the assessment movement at our institutions.

But even with the many articles, programs and standards related to the assessment of library services, it is something we still find difficult to grasp. In an effort to help institutions in my neck of the woods improve their understanding of and ability to conduct assessment, a regional higher education association conducted a full-day assessment workshop which I had the good fortune to attend. A theme repeated throughout the workshop was that part of the assessment challenge is the word itself. Either people don’t get it or they are adverse to being a part of the process. The experts’ advice was to avoid using the “A” word at all. Instead, frame discussions about assessment in terms of the simple question “What do you want students to be able to do?” The answers to that question can then form learning outcomes for individuals courses, the institution as a whole or for skill attainment areas such as information literacy. Other basic questions that can contribute to both the identification of outcomes and ways to measure them include:

  • Do we meet or exceed accreditation standards?
  • Do we compare well to others?
  • Are we meeting goals?
  • Are we getting better?
  • Are we getting the most out of our investments?
  • Perhaps when we replace our assessment jargon with some simple questions we might actually make more progress in determining the extent to which the academic library contributes to students achieving institutional learning outcomes. Just coincidentally, later in the week, Pace University issued an assessment report that provides some interesting ideas for assessing student learning. While it’s an institutional blueprint for assessment it makes good reading for those who wish to learn more about higher education assessment challenges and approaches. The demand for greater accountability in higher education is likely to only grow in strength. It would benefit academic librarians to develop methods to both quantitatively and qualitatively demonstrate how their libraries contribute to students’ academic success. Oh, and a final benefit of attending an assessment workshop – finding out that your peers are just as challenged by it as you are.

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