Dangerous Liaisons - UW Libraries

July 20, 2017

Reflections from an assessment newbie

Laura Dimmit

Last week, the librarians here at the UWB/CC library met for a yearly event that is lovingly called the “Assessment Party.” This day was part of a larger project, focused on library learning outcomes for Cascadia’s College 101 course. College 101, also called College Strategies, is one of the primary courses targeted for instruction at Cascadia, and one that nearly all Cascadia students will take.

College 101 Course Description: This course introduces students to Cascadia’s collaborative and integrated learning model, provides a lens for establishing ownership and control over their education, and contextualizes active learning in their everyday lives. Students will be introduced to the culture and politics of higher education, as well as to intersecting, particular, and disparate ways of knowing, making meaning, and reasoning within different academic disciplines. Students will discuss the role of productive struggle, critical thinking, collaboration, persistence, and time management in academic success. Additionally, this class will connect students to the variety of library, technological, health, wellness, and safety, and co-curricular resources available at Cascadia to help them plan and implement their educational program.

Over the course of the 2016-2017 academic year, librarians (including myself) collaborated with faculty teaching specific sections to collect student work samples. We collected two types of work: Research Activities, which are generally deployed via Canvas and integrated into a larger class assignment, and Reflective Essays, which students completed after the research component of their class, near the end of the quarter.

During our daylong rubric norming and sample scoring process, we used these two artifacts to examine two broad learning outcomes:

“Engage and evaluate information critically” for the Research Activities, and

“Recognizes and reflects on learning and research processes” for the Reflective Essays.

Having never been involved with a long-term assessment project, our workday was the exclamation point on a thought provoking process. Here are a few things I’ve been chewing on since then:

The privileging of written communication:

Especially during the rubric norming process, our group kept returning to variations on this question: how much can we give students credit for what it appears they are trying to say, versus what the literal words on the page say?

Given my background in composition, it was sometimes challenging to separate out the details relevant to the rubric from issues of grammar, structure, and word choice.

Particularly with the reflective essay samples, I wonder what would (or would not have) changed in our scoring if we had given students the prompts and then asked them to talk through their answers while we recorded.

It would be difficult to design an assessment that equally represented every individual’s strongest communication method, but I look at this experience as a reminder that much of what students to do prove themselves is written.

Change your assessment, change your teaching

One component of our research activity rubric was to check students’ ability to hypothesize about or identify author bias and author perspectives.

Text of two questions included in our Research Activities completed by students.

However, though this was something we were asking students to engage with, it wasn’t something I explicitly made space for in my College 101 lesson plans this year. Why should I expect students who are generally brand new to a higher education environment to know what we mean by ‘author perspectives’ if I am not making time to explore that concept with them?

In a way, the samples from the sections I worked with are a useful litmus test for what students think about bias and perspective, but I have also learned the importance of lining up what you want to know with what you’re actually going to do with students. (Why seems so obvious that I can hardly type it! But sometimes, in the course of learning, one has to realize seemingly obvious things.)

Norming can be like a three-legged race…

…once you find you figure out how to work together, you can get into a good rhythm. But getting to that point can be tricky.

When I used to sit down to grade student essays, it was difficult, but ultimately I only had to agree on what an ‘A’ looked like with myself.

The group norming we did–featuring librarians as well as faculty, each bringing their own perspectives–was an entirely different experience. The balance between needing to be certain about what you think individually–this sample is definitely “beginning” and not “developing”–while at the same time being able to hear and understand alternative viewpoints–is a delicate one, but also an effective reminder of the power of engaged, active listening.

Overall, I felt that this process raised more questions for me than it answered which, while frustrating, is also useful. It gives me somewhere to go with my own sections of College 101 this fall, and it was a vivid reminder that learning is a complex, squishy thing that can be hard to define, but also that so many of our questions and long-term student success goals are best explored in partnership with faculty.


Special shout-out to Leslie Hurst, Dani Rowland, Caitlan Maxwell, Jackie Belanger, and the rest of the fabulous folks who made our Assessment Day 2017 possible!