Blog: Idea Exchange

How to Engage Faculty in Assessment

Julia J. C. Blau, Ph.D. September 7, 2018

Faculty and administrators speak different languages. This can lead to some sticky situations because on the surface we appear to be speaking a common language. So when something we say is radically misinterpreted, it’s pretty easy to assume that the person with whom we are speaking is in some way willfully misunderstanding us. They are not. They merely have a different agreed upon definition of certain words.

Take “assessment.” To administrators, it’s a process to measure whether the actions taken by the college are effective in reaching the college’s overall mission. To faculty members, it’s grades. Grades measure how well a student has learned the material, but they also measure how well they have been taught. Do you see the problem? If an administrator tells a faculty member that they need to submit an assessment plan, then an assessment report, the faculty member is going to be offended. The administrator believes they have asked for information about what the school could be doing better to reach its full potential; the faculty member hears that they aren’t trusted to do the job for which they were hired.

Administrators need to learn to speak academic. I know it would be just as effective for academics to learn to speak administration, but it’s very unlikely that is going to happen. I say this with full love and respect for academics (I am one!), but they are a stubborn lot and their focus is where it should be – on the students. Academics are, on the whole, passionately dedicated to knowledge: conveying knowledge to students, and expanding the set of all knowledge through research. Anything that is in service of that goal is good and worthy of attention; anything not in service of that goal is irritating and a waste of time. All an administration has to do to reach the academics is to frame issues in terms of those goals.

A case study: I am a member of the Academic Program Assessment Committee (APAC) at my university. To maintain accreditation, our school is required to have all academic departments complete assessment plans and reports. The academic departments were (to put it kindly) reluctant to do so (see above for why). To them, it felt like a gross overreach on the part of the administration and a waste of time, besides. Actual protests were staged. So I decided to create a work of translation.

I created a document with a template of each of the assessment documents (the overall Strategic Plan, the department’s Strategic Plan, the department’s Assessment Plan, and the department’s Assessment Report) as if I was the chair of the Defense Against the Dark Arts department at Hogwarts School for Witchcraft and Wizardry. The document first explained the point of all this – to let the school know how things are going and what is needed to make it go better – and then explained how to do it with the least amount of fuss possible.

It was funny, it was an easy read, it was written in academic, and it was geared toward academic goals. For example, one part of the report indicated that part of the reason a particular learning outcome wasn’t being met was because they lacked the requisite faculty numbers to staff recommended student-teacher ratios. Or in other words, it requested another faculty line so they could effectively reach their goals.

Before the dissemination of this report, we had roughly 10% compliance from the departments with regards to assessment requirements – and every department that was in compliance had a representative on APAC. Getting departments to even talk to us about their reports was like pulling teeth! But after the Hogwarts plan came out, we very rapidly saw an increase in participation. At this point, we have 100% compliance. I attribute the increase to finally phrasing the task in a way that made it seem like a pathway to achieving their goals, rather than a distraction from them.

Reaching academics isn’t impossible. Getting faculty engaged and involved isn’t impossible. But it does require acknowledging that our shared language isn’t actually shared. In the end, academics and administrators are simply attacking the same broad desire – to make our institution the best it can be – from different angles. If you want to get faculty involved in some process, you have to make contact with what they see as important:

Tell them how the process will benefit students.

Faculty members usually care deeply about the quality of education they are able to provide. So they will make time to get involved if they believe it will improve that quality.

Tell them how it will benefit them.

Faculty members will make time to get involved if they believe it will result in smaller class sizes, more faculty lines, more and better facilities, a reduction in committee work, more financial support for attending conferences, etc., etc.

Want to get them to include explaining financial aid to students in their advising sessions? Explain how that will relieve some of the burden on the financial aid office which will allow them to spend more time bringing money into the school. Want to get them engaged in writing the school’s Strategic Plan? Explain how they will get to bring the academic goals front and center in measurable ways. Want to get them involved in assessment? Explain how it is an opportunity to communicate the department’s needs in a language the administrators can understand.

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Author
Julia J. C. Blau, Ph.D.
SUNY Oneonta