Assessment Innovation at Community Colleges: a NILOA-Led Conversation

February 28, 2022 Watermark Insights


If you want to see some innovative assessment work, check in with community colleges. Because of their student population, program structure, and relationship with stakeholders, they have a fresh perspective on assessment, and have developed exciting practices related to pathways to completion and competency-based education programs.

Watermark and NILOA held a panel discussion with community college assessment leaders to discuss the unique challenges and opportunities for assessment at community colleges. Here’s an excerpt of that conversation, featuring:

  • Kathy Adair, Director of Development & Assessment and Social Science Department Chair, Bay Mills Community College
  • Jacob Ashby, Assistant Dean for Assessment & Articulation, Frederick Community College
  • Jill Millard, Associate Vice President of Planning & Institutional Effectiveness, South Piedmont Community College

The conversation was moderated by Natasha Jankowski, Director of the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) and Research Associate Professor with the Department of Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.

What is unique about assessment of student learning at community colleges?

Jacob Ashby: The thing that makes assessment at community college most unique is the community college mission. In addition, we don’t have traditional cohorts like a four year institution might have. That makes the design of assessment really interesting, and makes us be more flexible in how we design course, general education, and program assessment.

Kathy Adair: We have small class sizes and sometimes particularly with programs assessment, it’s difficult because we don’t have that cohort of students. We cannot assess on a yearly basis because we might only have four or five graduates in any given program. So it puts a new spin on assessment and makes us really think about how can we assess our programs and our student progress.

Jill Millard: The other thing I think we deal with is the diversity of the programs that we offer. We have about 39 transfer programs that run the gamut of things—industrial programs, medical programs, culinary arts programs. Finding ways to assess those programs, which have a lot of high-contact hours, can be challenging.

It’s fascinating to think about what a program means within a community college context, in addition to just the diversity of programs that are offered. Do you have any advice on how to start thinking about assessing within that context?

Jacob Ashby: For me, the first place to start is the catalog and the curriculum, and then get to know the managers in the programs. You can’t really design assessment without understanding the programs, so everything I do at my institution is based on relationships with those faculty members.

Jill Millard: A lot of those people that come from private industry and become a community college faculty member have been doing assessment informally in their work—if they’ve trained others in their work for instance. One way I like to connect with them is to remind them that they’ve been assessing at their workplace already—they just didn’t call it that. So if you were evaluating employees, what does the occupation require? You can connect that to the program, and then kind of teaching them the concept of assessment from there.

What lessons can other types of institutions learn from assessment that’s going on at community colleges?

Jill Millard: When you think about the diversity of the programs that we offer and the various occupations that are covered through these programs, we have to be creative in coming up with ways to assess the skills that are required for our graduates. I know that’s probably true in other institutions, but a lot of these are very hands-on types of skills where a student can’t just submit a paper. They have to be observed in a lab, clinical, or some other type of hands-on situation. It can take some creativity to come up with what you’re going to evaluate and how you’re going to actually score that in a meaningful way.

Jacob Ashby: We are all asked to do program review, course assessment, general education assessment, and that’s a lot of work when you have so many diverse programs. A lot of community colleges are working with limited resources, so we’ve learned to use what we have. In a lot of instances we’re already collecting data, so when you start to design an assessment, start with what you already have then find the holes and build out how you collect the additional data that you need, whether it’s a direct or indirect measure.

Kathy Adair: Go to the experts. Give the folks teaching these courses a chance to determine what the best form of assessment might be. Make sure that their outcomes are actually assessable and make sense. We’ve had to go back and look at all the syllabi to make sure that we can assess what they say they’re going to assess and really start at the very bottom and work our way up to formulating a good assessment plan.

How do you engage faculty in assessment of student learning? I’m especially interested in defining the term “faculty” in the community college context. Discuss what it means to be a part-time adjunct? It can be a bit messy at times.

Jacob Ashby: At Frederick Community College, we have a lot of adjunct faculty, like most community colleges. We generally have a full-time faculty member as a liaison for each department as part of our outcomes assessment council. Those are the people I reach out to and interact with. Within departments, they serve as a champion for what we’re doing, whether that’s general education assessment, program review.

We actually ask that every general education course collect data. We’ve had about a 70 percent participation rate from adjunct faculty. We’ve achieved that by holding adjunct nights each semester, where new adjuncts have to attend assessment-related training. We also schedule open labs at the end of each semester where I’m in an open area where adjunct faculty can come in and enter their data. We also have a faculty resources page on our website, which adjuncts can access at any point. And finally, I send personal emails with information on submitting data on the specific courses they teach.

Kathy Adair: We take a top down approach. We only have 15 full-time faculty, and they are responsible for their adjuncts. Adjuncts turn in their assessment forms to full-time faculty, who are responsible for putting it into our system. Our full-time faculty here on campus, I can go door to door and say, hey, I haven’t seen your assessment yet. What’s up? Get with your folks and get that assessment in. Holding the full-time faculty department chairs responsible for their adjuncts is really helpful.

Jill Millard: A while back, we were trying to decide if the entire college was going to move to portfolio assessment. Our School of Arts and Sciences school decided to move to portfolio assessment, but our schools of Health and Public Services and Applied Science & Technology chose to continue course-based assessment. We knew we couldn’t try to do the one size fits all approach—it doesn’t engage faculty. So we worked together to figure out how to make each of the schools happy and still be able to conduct meaningful assessment for their particular set of programs.

There’s more!

The conversation doesn’t end here! If you’d like to hear these community college leaders discuss assessment topics including accreditation, program review, and the role that assessment technology plays at these institutions, read part two of this series or listen to the full conversation.


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