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Defining “Best”: The World of Assessment
By 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?”

Welcome to 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 education?  How 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 this process:

*What 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 them?

* 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. “

“Assessment 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 projects.
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