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Designing & Coordinating a GenEd Assessment Process

by Dr. Ranfen Li, Director of Academic Assessment, Office of Programs and Academic Assessment, University of Illinois at Chicago & Jennifer Sweet, Former Assessment Specialist, University of Illinois at Chicago (now Associate Director in the Office of Teaching, Learning, and Assessment, DePaul University)

Brief Overview

The University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), a large public research university, revamped its general education program and implemented a new general education program beginning in fall 2007. The new general education curriculum is clustered around six thematic categories: Analyzing the Natural World, Exploring World Cultures, Understanding the Creative Arts, Understanding the Individual and Society, Understanding the Past, and Understanding U.S. Society. Each category includes four to seven specific learning outcomes students are expected to achieve in coursework approved for that category. Under the revamped general education program, courses are mapped to specific learning outcomes in at least one of the general education categories. Instructors are expected to teach skills as well as knowledge and concepts specified by these outcomes. The new General Education Program laid a foundation for developing a process for general education assessment.

The Problems

The Office of Programs and Academic Assessment is charged with the responsibility of coordinating the development and implementation of a campus wide general education assessment process. In designing and implementing the assessment process, we addressed the following three key questions:

  1. What approach will be the most appropriate?
  2. How will we implement the identified approach?
  3. How can we involve faculty in the implementation?

Our strategy was to identify main problems related to the three key questions, then identify and utilize institutional strengths to address the problems. The major problems are:

  • The large size of the UIC general education program
  • Faculty’s lack of awareness of the new General Education Program
  • Faculty misgivings about the purpose of general education assessment

Using a process of reflective thinking, we were able to identify institutional strengths and use those strengths to address barriers to developing and implementing a general education assessment process. Our institutional strengths include 1) a committed general education assessment committee, 2) strong support from the Provost’s office, 3) good departmental leadership from heads and directors of undergraduate studies, and 4) a general education faculty devoted to students’ learning. The following is a discussion of how we have found answers to the three key questions.

Finding Answers to Questions 1: Developing a Course-based General Education Assessment

UIC has around 400 general education courses, distributed in 53 disciplinary areas or departments. About 200 general education courses are offered each semester. Each course may have multiple sections, and therefore, multiple instructors. What approach would be most appropriate to conduct general education assessment given the large size of the UIC general education program? To tackle the question and address the issue of the size of our program, we utilized one of our main institutional strengths: our General Education Assessment Committee. We took this issue to the committee at the beginning of the assessment process development. The committee believed that each disciplinary area is unique and may demand its own methods of assessing general education outcomes within its context. They also indicated that implementation of an assessment project at the campus level would be labor intensive. The committee suggested we conduct a pilot with a few faculty members and through it, we found that instructors do teach and assess students in their own ways. As a result, we developed a course-based assessment approach, using a general education assessment form, which gathers information about how instructors teach and assess students’ general education competencies in their respective courses. This approach allows variability in ways faculty assess students, but ensures uniformity in the information we collect from all general education courses.

Finding Answers to Question 2: Using Technology to Facilitate Collection and Storage of Assessment Information and Conducting Sampling

Again, given the large size of the UIC general education program as described above, how could we (basically, a 2 person assessment office) gather general education assessment information from individual instructors? We sought support from the Provost’s Office, which provided funding for us to purchase Tk20 CampusWide™, a comprehensive assessment system. Working with Tk20, we aligned general education outcomes with general education courses in a Tk20 curriculum map. Then, we sent out a Tk20 form to collect general education assessment data from faculty. Also, based on advice from our General Education Assessment Committee, we developed a random sampling scheme to reduce the scope of general education assessment implementation. Every semester, we sample 25% of general education courses offered and require instructors of the selected courses to complete the general education assessment form in Tk20.

Finding Answers to Question 3: Increasing Faculty Awareness of General Education Program and Assessment, Clarifying Purpose of Assessment, and Involving Departmental Leadership

Two problems are associated with this question: How can we involve faculty in the implementation?

Problem 1: Faculty lack of awareness of the new General Education Program

Upon initial implementation of the General Education assessment process, we immediately realized general education instructors were not all aware of the new General Education Program or the General Education Learning Outcomes approved for their courses. Because courses were converted to the new general education program by a faculty committee, most instructors did not know their courses had been converted and were not familiar with the categories and outcomes approved for their courses. They were also confused about the distinction between course learning objectives and general educational learning outcomes. Without knowing general education, how could faculty connect teaching to general education learning outcomes?

Again, we presented the problem to the General Education Assessment Committee for discussion. The committee recommended our office develop documents to provide information to faculty about general education assessment. Our office developed an informational sheet for each instructor completing general education assessment, which includes the purpose of assessing the general education program, the specific categories and learning outcomes approved for the course, the questions included in the assessment form, and the timeframe for completing the assessment form. Initially, we distributed the information sheet to instructors at mid-semester. Based on feedback we solicited from a few general education instructors who were completing the process, we learned the informational document about general education assessment was helpful, but would be most useful at the beginning of the semester. Information in the beginning would allow instructors to make appropriate adjustments to their lesson plans to emphasize general education learning outcomes. Based on this feedback, we now distribute this information earlier in the semester, to help increase faculty awareness of general education and assessment.

Problem 2: Misgivings regarding the purpose of general education assessment

Initially, faculty expressed concerns that the assessment was meant to evaluate them as instructors or the suitability of their courses for the General Education Program. To address faculty’s uncertainties regarding the purposes of general education assessment, we turned to two of our major strengths: strong support from the Provost’s office and good departmental leadership. We first reached out to the Provost’s office. On behalf of the Provost, the Vice Provost of Planning and Programs began to send individual memos to faculty members who will participate in general education assessment during a given semester, along with their Directors of Undergraduate Studies or Department Heads. The memo describes that the purpose of general education assessment is to assess students’ learning and not to evaluate instructors. It also clarifies that the information collected will not be used for faculty tenure or promotion decisions or to remove courses from the General Education program.

In addition, we utilized departmental leadership to help clarify the purposes of assessment. After the Directors of Undergraduate Studies or Department Heads received the memo from the Vice Provost, we scheduled meetings with them. These meetings ensured departmental leadership understood the purpose and necessity of completing general education assessment. The involvement of departmental leadership provided departmental level accountability for completion of general education assessment tasks.

The Results: A General Education Assessment Developed and Implemented

We have been implementing a course-based general education assessment using Tk20 since fall 2009. The process includes the following major steps.

  1. We begin the process with the selection of an appropriate sample of general education courses each semester.
  2. The Vice Provost first sends memos to departmental leadership (either the Director of Undergraduate Studies or Department Head) of departments that will be involved in general education assessment that semester. The memo notifies them of the purpose and necessity of general education assessment.
  3. Our office then meets with leadership from each department that will be involved to clarify the purpose, process, and address any questions or concerns. We ask the department to notify the faculty who will be asked to report their general education assessment that semester.
  4. The Vice Provost then sends a memo to each faculty member who will complete general education assessment to inform them of the purposes and necessity of the general education assessment.
  5. Our office follows up with an email and information sheet to inform each faculty member of the general education program at UIC, as well as the general education categories and outcomes approved for the course. The information sheet also includes an explanation of the purpose of general education assessment, the questions i
  6. Our office makes requests to faculty for completing the General Education Assessment Form in Tk20 one week before the final week of a semester and provides technical support.
  7. Instructors complete the general education assessment form at the end of the semester.
  8. Our office provides an update of completion status to departmental leadership one week before the deadline.
  9. Departmental leadership reminds those who have not completed the task.
  10. In the most recent semester (fall 2012), we achieved 100% completion rate out of 43 sampled courses.