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Creating Meaningful Pathways for Articulating Assessment

by Monica Joy Krol, Tk20 Product Manager and Gary Flynn, Tk20 Implementation Project Coordinator

With a greater national interest in the quality of higher education, outcomes assessment and program review are hot topics. In order to prepare students for an increasingly competitive marketplace, the focus is not just on the end product of a graduating student, but on the path to excellence provided by institutions. As institutions endeavor to articulate learning outcomes, both internally and externally, we often struggle with how assessment terminology is conveyed.

A few years ago I went to a powerful retreat for personal growth and exploration. During this retreat I engaged in an activity about communication and point of view. We were asked to assemble in groups and without talking to each other, write down the first five words we thought of when we heard the word “Love.” Afterwards, we shared our words with the group. To my surprise it was extremely rare for a group of five people to have even one word in common.

Words essentially are a combination of letters and sounds that symbolize meaning. Considering the variable experiences that each of us have with love, it is not surprising that our associations with the word “love” would be so different. Words are tied with our experiences which often shape our point of view. I wondered, “If this is true with a word like ”love”, would it be true with other words that permeate higher education institutions today?”

Gary Flynn, an Implementation Project Coordinator, and I put it to the test at the Annual Tk20 User Conference. We asked participants to first engage in the activity using the word “love.” Responses and realizations within the group were consistent with my experience at the retreat. We then introduced our second word, “assessment.” While responses were not as varied as with “love”, it was clear that there were various associations with assessment. Many words referenced learning or growth, while others used terminology that frequents assessment planning. Some said objectives. Others said outcomes. To quote Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong, “You say potato, I say potahto.”

However, not just word associations were disparate. Some of the words carried affective characteristics, either positive or negative. For example, one word that was shared was “frustrating.” Are faculty and staff experiencing cognitive dissonance when they talk about assessment? How does this impact the culture of assessment on campus and the actual implementation of assessment practices?

If you are not a university administrator, pretend for a moment you are. You are probably already aware of the climate regarding assessment on your campus. Or are you? When you think of assessment and your faculty members, are you haunted by the image of faculty members bristling at the suggestion that they should come to a consensus regarding assessment terminology? What would happen if you presented the “love” and “assessment” association game to your group of faculty and staff?

At Tk20, we successfully support a variety of institutions with their assessment practices. As a result, we are exposed to a wide range of assessment terminology and institutional nomenclature. Some schools use the global terms of goal, objective, and outcome. Others use a unique language that is sometimes synonymous with these global terms.

It is not always apparent that assessment terminology is an impediment to assessment processes on campus. Various external and internal participants are interpreting this language including accreditation review teams, external review boards, faculty, and staff in assessment of student learning and institutional assessment practices.

In “Outcomes-Based Academic and Co-Curricular Program Review,” Bresciani, MJ (2006) provides resources and examples to aid institutions in creating and communicating the meaning of assessment terms, and more importantly, creating positive experiences with them.

The “Crosswalk”

A crosswalk can be collaboratively created at your institution to establish a shared understanding of terminology. It is used as a way to convey meaning of multiple terms or standards. I have witnessed the crosswalk as an excellent strategy for teacher education units to tie their institutional learning outcomes to state and/or national program standards, such as the example below.

IPT Standards NCTE Standards School of Education Outcomes
Standard 1 – Content Knowledge 3.0 1, 6
Standard 2 – Human Development & Learning 3.0, 4.0 1, 3, 5
Standard 3 – Diversity 2.0, 3.0, 4.0 5, 8

A crosswalk is also is an effective way of aligning terminology of an accrediting agency to terminology at your institution. An accrediting agency’s “objective” may be referred to as an “outcome” at your institution. Furthermore, a crosswalk can establish shared understanding of terminology between the university and individual colleges and divisions. Here is an example of a crosswalk between the university and two departments:

University Student Affairs Department Academic Affairs Department
Mission Vision Purpose
Goals Objective Goals
Outcomes Outcomes Objectives

Creating a crosswalk can be an effective way to embed assessment terminology into your organization, as the process and outcomes:

  • Clarify and therefore diminish frustration and confusion
  • Articulate what occurs in the every day
  • Facilitate staff and faculty taking ownership over the process
  • Create opportunity for empowerment.

The crosswalk also can serve as a dynamic document that assists institutions in their assessment of their assessment system. It is important to revisit the terminology and assess whether it “fits” or remains relevant. A good question to ask each year is “Has the terminology been revisited and edited if necessary?”

Beyond the Terminology

Bresciani discusses many university examples for this. Consider building a dedicated assessment site with terminology, documentation, and process flowcharts. Many have created this with internal websites or wikis. If you are a Tk20 partner institution, ask your Product Consultant to share examples with you.

Sound too easy? Continuous communication is crucial for success. Bresciani summarizes the scope of assessment well, “This is a dynamic process that requires flexibility, tolerance for ambiguity, and a constant commitment to genuine reflection that resonates from program faculty and staff.” It is important to consider and address all of the areas where misconceptions can occur. By understanding the disparate views of assessment on your campus, you can begin to identify where clarity is needed and start the process of articulating the pathway to common ground.

About the Authors

Photo of Monica Joy Krol from Tk20

Monica Joy Krol, Tk20 Product Manager

Monica Joy Krol joined the Tk20 team in May 2013 in a dual role as Assessment and Accreditation Consultant and Customer Solutions Advocate. Previously she served as the Director of Institutional Research at Corning Community College in The State University of New York system. In this position, she guided faculty and staff in the collection, review, and analysis of program and institutional data, and actively engaged in Strategic Planning and Middle States accreditation efforts. She began her journey in higher education and assessment as a graduate assistant during Nazareth College’s TEAC Self-Study, has served as an Assessment Coordinator at Dominican University’s School of Education, and has supported various institutions nationally in assessment and accreditation solutions. She earned her Bachelor’s from The State University of New York at Brockport, and her Master’s in Education from Nazareth College. A true data and assessment geek, she is also an avid runner, artist, puppeteer, and life-long learner.


Photo of Gary Flynn from Tk20

Gary Flynn, Tk20 Implementation Project Coordinator

Gary Flynn initially joined Tk20 as a Product Consultant in 2013 and became an Implementation Project Coordinator in 2014. He holds a B.A. in Writing and Literature and an M.Ed. from the University of California, San Diego. Before joining Tk20, he worked as a K-12 teacher in California and Texas, focusing in the areas of language arts, math, and science. In his off-hours he enjoys exploring natural areas by hiking and biking with his wife and two children.