Defining “Best”: The World of Assessment
Lisa M. Cania M’82
St. Lawrence is a great liberal arts institution. How do we know
that? How do you know if you’ve had the best education possible?
How do we assess that we’ve done our jobs? How do we together
define “best education possible?”
the world of assessment.
Assessment helps us to focus on “how we
can do better what we already do well,” asserts Carol Bate, director
of career planning and leadership education and co-chair of the Assessment
Committee at St. Lawrence with Associate Professor of Psychology and Special
Assistant to the President for Assessment Kim Mooney and Christine Zimmerman,
director of institutional research.
The Questions We Ask
Assessment involves asking ourselves three fundamental questions: what
do we hope students will learn or achieve during their undergraduate
can we measure that learning or achievement in ways that make
sense for the goals? And how can this measurement loop back into pedagogy,
practice, strategic planning and resource allocation?
Because the premise
at St. Lawrence is that assessment work be first and foremost
about students’ learning
throughout their four years, these questions guide the initial phase of
should students know, understand, and be able to do when they
graduate from St. Lawrence University?
*What are the key learning
goals in specific academic programs?
*What are the key learning
goals in specific co-curricular programs?
* How do we bring
our best practices as teachers, scholars, advisors, creative
artists and research scientists to bear on student achievement
of these learning goals?
*How do we know our students are accomplishing
the learning the curriculum and co-curriculum sets out for
* How might we systematically gather, analyze and interpret
evidence to determine how well student performance matches
stated expectations and criteria?
*What assessment practices
will allow us to answer these questions adequately, honestly,
and in a way that informs and improves future teaching and learning efforts?
Student learning assessment seeks
to answer the broad question, "What
and how well do our students learn what we are attempting to
teach them?" and
is most successful and useful when the strategies employed
correspond to key learning goals. Assessment also works best
when it is not limited only to academic programs, but addresses student
learning in institution-wide contexts.
Mooney acknowledges that “in
some ways, what is most valued about a liberal arts education
is truly ‘unassessable’ because
its impact is not fully revealed for many years”; still, the questions
shaped by the committee may influence classroom assignments
and teaching strategies and help University leadership understand
the characteristics and benefits of a St. Lawrence education. “
is not a one-size-fits-all process,” says Mooney. “What
works for the physics department may not work for the philosophy department;
what works for the Class of 2007 may not work for the Class of 2011.”
Assessment goes beyond the academic programs of the University,
of course, and this spring, the assessment committee worked on the outline
of an overall institutional assessment plan. The committee will
not conduct assessment of the entire University; it will recommend best practices
and tools that administrative divisions might use in their own assessment