Question of the week: Assessment of student learning is a contentious issue among sociology faculty. From the perspective of your department, what are the positive and negative features of assessment activities? Are assessment requirements becoming more standardized at your institution?
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A Frequent Issue of Concern
In our 2008 survey of sociology departments, we asked respondents what they considered the most pressing issues in their programs and institutions. (See “What’s Happening in Your Department? A Comparison of Findings From the 2001 and 2007 Department Surveys“). Common among the open-ended responses were concerns about burdensome workloads and disproportionate compensation; heavier reliance on part-time faculty and the inability to replace full-time faculty who left, growth in majors or defending the vitality of the discipline; competition with criminal justice programs; and strategies to attract well-qualified graduate students.
Another commonly cited issue had to do with what faculty member called “the obsession with assessment.” In particular, departments have raised concerns about the amount of time the process takes (especially as time appears to be a scarcer resource), inefficient training, the lack of new resources that result from the effort, the disconnect between bureaucracy and education, and the possibility of negative consequences to the department.
One respondent wrote:
We are inundated by initiatives from the administration, faculty bodies, accrediting agencies, the Commission on Higher Education, and state government. We spend an ever-increasing portion of our time and energy responding, accommodating, and resisting. This does not lead to any measurable improvement in anything we do. It does harm morale.
Another faculty member involved in the development of an assessment program wrote:
We are concerned about how assessment information will be used both within the institution and by the state. As a public institution, we must serve the needs of our immediate constituents, our students, and the larger constituency of state government and the public. We are concerned that attempts will be made to evaluate individual faculty or departments with the assessment data we collect. There has been some exploration of “standardized assessment tools” by our administration. When concerns were raised about following this system of assessment, we were assured it was primarily to understand what was available, and might one day be required… I felt that the opportunity to teach people at the state level could be lost, and the appearance of interest in standardized assessment could be considered an indicator of a willingness to use that form of assessment.
And still another described changes in their program:
…We have changed our curriculum, the new major will being in the fall. One of the major changes is a new focus on public sociology… We are also changing our social work minor toward a human services minor. The issue of changing to move into a new century has been a positive process for us. We have also been upgrading our web sites, thinking about a blog. Under the leadership of one faculty member, we are learning to use technology to “market” ourselves and to understand what will attract this new generation of students. That has also been a very positive process.
In “What’s Happening in Your Department with Assessment?“ we reported a greater number of sociology departments were using some form of assessment in Academic Years (AY) 2006/07 than in AY 2000/01. A little more than a third of departments at research and doctoral universities were engaged in the process, followed by 80 percent of those at baccalaureate institutions, and more than 90 percent of departments at master’s comprehensive schools. Moreover, departments with higher course loads and major-to-faculty ratios were more likely to assess student learning.
Most departments don’t appear to use a single type of assessment, and some employ both direct and indirect methods. Of the measures of assessment technique available, departments at all types of institutions seemed to focus on a student survey, capstone course, senior thesis project, and exit interview. The percentage of departments using these methods remained relatively stable between survey years. In contrast, fewer departments reported using a department exam, portfolio, and employer survey.
Aside from evaluating individual students’ mastery of learning goals, assessment techniques can also be used at the classroom and program level to modify curriculum and perhaps, their mission. Nearly three-quarters of respondents in the 2008 department survey either recently underwent major curriculum revisions, or intended to do so in the near future, although there was variation by type of institution (about 75% of masters and baccalaureate institutions made major curriculum revisions while only 60 percent of research and doctoral institutions did so).
Join the Discussion
Although there are many stakeholders in the conversation on assessment, we especially interested in hearing about experiences from faculty. Form the perspective of your department, what are the positive and negative features of assessment activities? Are assessment requirements becoming more standardized at your institution?
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