Texas A&M Article - Gonzaga University

“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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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
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.