“Bottoms Up: Institutional Collaboration and the Creation of an Assessment Culture” In a scenario common to many institutions of higher learning in recent years, in 1994 Gonzaga University was reprimanded by its accrediting body for failure to establish a systematic process of outcomes assessment. Ten years later, the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities returned to discover that little had changed, especially in the College of Arts and Sciences, a school without an external professional accrediting body to provide support or pressure. In the intervening four years, however, we have shifted to a faculty-led bottoms-up approach that is creating a learning assessment culture leading to genuine educational improvements. The historic institutional failure to develop essential assessment tools and procedures resulted in the NWCCU giving us two years to demonstrate significant progress or risk loss of accreditation. This time we took it seriously. The Assistant Academic Vice President was put in charge of shepherding academic departments—primarily in Arts and Sciences—to develop assessment plans, processes and reports. To say that there was serious faculty resistance is an understatement. One departmental chairperson proclaimed that his department would not participate in what was clearly an immoral process that allowed outside bodies to tell us how to teach. Resistance persisted over an initial year-long, relatively unsuccessful, attempt to impose meaningful assessment administratively. At that point, the AVP threw his support behind a bottoms-up approach recommended by faculty members who believed that their colleagues would 2 recognize the value of good assessment if a top-down process could be avoided. This effort, like the best assessment efforts everywhere, consisted of multiple elements. We needed to engage departments in conversation about the role of assessment in improving their academic programs and their students’ classroom experiences. A few faculty members attended the TAMU Assessment Conference (2006) and shared with their colleagues what they had learned. The University committed itself to an annual half-day (Student Learning Outcomes Day—SLOD) on which the entire institution works on outcomes assessment. External (faculty) experts reshaped the conversation to be about improving teaching. Colleagues experienced in assessment shared their expertise with skeptical peers, and departments were asked to create a simple annual assessment report, with tangible support for developing data-gathering instruments and rubrics. To ensure that this was faculty work, the leadership of the effort was placed in the Assessment Committee of the Academic Council, a largely-faculty group that develops, disseminates and reviews annual academic assessment reports. This committee has subsequently been involved in creating and planning for the SLOD, an event that begins with breakfast, followed by in-house or external faculty speakers. Departments meet for two hours to work on specific projects identified in their annual plan. These vary from developing rubrics for a comprehensive exam, to identifying learning outcomes for a particular program, or revising existing learning outcomes based on assessment data. We create an opportunity to report back, as the variety of work and the emerging program developments seem to be of interest to faculty across the institution; this reporting session provides new ways of thinking about assessment and energizes departments as they pursue their specific outcomes. The 3 turning points for our faculty have been directly connected to SLOD interactions with two experts: John Bean (Seattle University) and John Webster (University of Washington). The latter explored models of rubrics and the former framed assessment in accomplishable terms, demonstrating the value of rich faculty discourse. By January of 2007, it was clear that we needed formal administrative assistance to support this work, and we hired a Coordinator of Outcomes Assessment (COA), based in the Office of Institutional Research. This person would help faculty in develop various tools (e.g., Student Learning Outcomes Table, Faculty Assessment Handbook, surveys), provide access to assessment literature, and help educate faculty on the complexities and rewards of good assessment. Integrating the COA’s activities with other assessment work on campus has proven to be crucial; the COA must avoid getting ahead of the faculty in a bottoms-up effort. A successful COA must understand the campus culture, have requisite resources and administrative support, be creative, and provide constant feedback and information (a website can be very useful). Our accrediting body’s concern about assessing our University Core Curriculum has led us to apply the same bottoms-up approach here, as well. In the last academic year, we have engaged the academic areas of the institution in conversations that address the question: “What should the characteristics of a Gonzaga graduate be?” Having grounded these discussions in the Gonzaga Mission Statement--the source of specific skills and values that we have historically claimed for our graduates-- we are exploring how these skills and values are developed by an effective Core and whether our Core seems to achieve them. 4 Thus, we are starting with what we expect of our Core rather than only assessing what is now in place. This bottoms-up Core assessment provides qualitative assessment information. Some faculty members emphasize the merits of the existing Core: “The Core is introducing people to the conversation of humankind and introducing them to the literature of that conversation. We are teaching critical thinking, respect for others, and action flowing from this.” Others have identified deficiencies: [T]he current Core gives us a multidimensional, interdisciplinary critical reflection on the human condition [but] I would like to see better integration of what we have. and What comes from the Core [are] ways to think and look at questions. Something in the whole process has this result. But students don’t seem to be able to report what they’re doing in Core classes. Certain threads are emerging: critical thinking; certain literacies (e.g. social, religious, scientific, information, linguistic, mathematical, artistic); an understanding of students’ own traditions and others’; and the ability to make intellectual connections. Encouragingly, these threads mirror liberal education outcomes identified by the AAC&U. Faculty members leading this outcomes-oriented conversation are supported by the AVP and the Dean of Arts and Sciences (where the extant Core is exclusively housed). Of course, departmental politics are unavoidable (especially with departments that now “own” significant chunks of the Core), and the conversation must be kept focused on outcomes rather than on what particular courses ought to be in the Core. The dialogue includes Student Life and other academic support areas, as well as students (on the home campus and in foreign 5 programs) and alumni. The newly-formed University Core Committee is beginning to sift through summaries of the conversations and will consider available theoretical and successful models before suggesting Core models of our own for further discussion by the academic community and before decisions about revising the Core occur. A bottoms-up approach requires resourcefulness, particularly related to the SLOD. Reserving half a day during the academic year for institutional assessment work creates predictable resistance by some faculty. There is no universally acceptable time, so we alternate it between our M/W/F and our T/Th schedules. We provide timely and repeated reminders and ask the academic deans to support the value of the work. We involve administrators in planning (and funding) SLOD activities. We have tried various appeals to engage faculty members (personal, logical, pedagogic, ethical), but threats about losing accreditation are clearly not productive, since this locates the effort in authority rather than in faculty values. Instead, we broaden faculty participation by encouraging open conversation and the voicing of objections within and across disciplines, provide honest and thoughtful peer feedback that focuses on the positive, respond to expressed faculty needs with appropriate resources, and— not to be underestimated--feed faculty and thank them when we ask them to do this work. Engaging in assessment work in this way is certainly not a quick fix. Departments progress at different rates and do not respond uniformly to outside experts or even terminology. It is clear, however, that faculty interests, involvement and leadership are crucial to success. Increasing numbers of departments seek financial support for this work as they understand what they need. Faculty members are buying into a process whose classroom benefits are discernable. Creating faculty ownership can be as simple as changing the language: “student 6 learning outcomes” is less loaded and promises successful teaching experiences, unlike “outcomes assessment,” a phrase with historic negative associations. It remains difficult to change the minds of colleagues who are unmotivated to do what is undeniably additional work, those who may be afraid to know what is happening in their classrooms, or those too comfortable with their routines, the success of which they believe in and accept without evidence (something they would never do in their professional research areas). Meaningful assessment relies on planning and continuous work—we must always be thinking about what happens next, and we cannot allow ourselves to lapse. So we pursue ongoing multiple-pronged efforts on campus, with other universities, and in new scholarly approaches. Thinking about how best to use our SLODs, we are considering giving our faculty a concrete look at who our students really are, based on the information the NSSE, CIRP and other surveys provide. Future SLODs will surely be devoted to our Core Curriculum discussion. This fall, we are bringing Ken Bain (What the Best College Teachers Do) to speak to us. We stress collaboration among faculty members, across departments and schools, and with other institutions that face similar concerns to ours. In cooperation with our sister institution, Seattle University, we are using a Teagle Foundation Assessment Planning Grant to develop effective models of assessing academic majors and our effectiveness in social justice education, a common Mission Statement value. Currently, we are preparing a Teagle implementation assessment grant, with or without which our two institutions plan to apply what we have learned from our planning grant to broaden assessment of embedded assignments in social justice courses and to revision our respective University Core Curricula; this will lead to an endowed Core, perpetuating a Core Experience that fulfills the claims of our Mission 7 Statements. We believe that the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning will also play an important role in supporting effective teaching and assessment. For example, this summer, three colleagues from Education, Economics and English brought their ideas about developing course-specific social justice learning outcomes to a national conference, where they also facilitated a social justice teaching conversation among half a dozen Jesuit institutions. These colleagues are currently engaged in a research project on social justice teaching assessment in their disciplines. We will improve our peer feedback process for departmental annual reports and pursue initiatives that increase faculty ownership of assessment work as we prepare for our five-year accreditation visit. Our past efforts have already proven effective, as our interim reports led to a postponement of a scheduled site visit for Core assessment. We now know that we can and must shape the accreditation conversation to fit our campus culture, our values and the goals we share with the accrediting body. Our success so far is based on true cooperation between administration and faculty: concrete and consistent administrative support for faculty ideas and faculty work. What we have accomplished might be difficult to do at very large institutions, but it should be replicable at many others. What we have done and what we envision for the future reinforces that basic truism of assessment work: a multi-pronged approach is best. Important to stress also is that good assessment work is never about reaching perfection but rather about improvement in the classroom, in programs, and across the institution. That well-known 20th century folk-philosopher, Mick Jagger, of The Rolling Stones, told us that “time is on our side.” But Mick’s message was never that we should wait or simply bide 8 our time, as Gonzaga has until recently. There will never be a perfect time for assessment, not even one single right time. Some have counseled us to wait because we have appointed two new deans and an acting Academic Vice President in the last year and will have a new President within a year, but examining what our students are actually learning cannot wait. All of us in academe must seize the moment. Challenges are no valid reason to delay improvement in teaching, student learning and our academic programs.