Laying the Foundation for a Learning Community in Practice: The Role of WSCUC’s Assessment Leadership Academy

errin heyman
Laying the Foundation for a Learning Community in Practice: The Role of WSCUC’s Assessment Leadership Academy

Errin Heyman, Ed.D.


Background and Beginnings

“Create a sustainable culture of facilitation and assessment of student learning outcomes…”

This was one of the first charges for the new center for teaching and learning at West Coast University (WCU). It was over three years ago that the provost and I began to discuss the notion of a new area within the university structure. We were transitioning from national accreditation to regional accreditation through the WASC Senior College and University Commission. This transition led to a tangible transformation for WCU, and at the center of the transformation was, and in many respects continues to be, assessment.

We wanted to be very intentional about the name of the center. Many “teaching and learning” centers exist, but we wanted “learning” to come first. First and foremost, WCU is a learning/teaching institution (as opposed to being research-focused). Second, we wanted “teaching” and “assessment” to be elements of the same framework. Thus, “CELTA” was born: the Center for Excellence in Learning, Teaching, and Assessment. We wanted to get the message across, especially to faculty and deans/chairs, that teaching and learning include assessment, not as a bolt-on activity, but as a part of the overall process of teaching and learning.

WCU’s provost likes to describe the sentiment this way: “If your goal is to teach someone how to ride a bike, wouldn’t you want to actually see the person riding the bike successfully?” It may be a simplistic example, but the point is clear: it’s not enough to simply transfer information and knowledge to learners. At some point you need to see the learner in action and assess progress; then, if there are gaps in knowledge, skills, or dispositions, you determine next steps and give feedback, have the learner try again, and re-assess.

As WCU was moving toward WSCUC accreditation, the new center was being established, with me as the founding director. The collective learning curve, especially around institutional assessment practices, was a steep one. We sent small armies of staff, including faculty, to any and all WSCUC workshops, and when the Assessment Leadership Academy was announced (then in its second year), I jumped at the chance to apply -- and my leadership was very supportive. This sounded like just the thing to help me help the rest of the university create and sustain a culture of assessment.

The description of the program was directly applicable:

The curriculum is broadly conceived, covering everything from practical skills to the history, philosophy, and politics behind the contemporary assessment movement. Participants will learn from nationally recognized leaders in higher education such as Peter Ewell, Trudy Banta, Jillian Kinzie, Kathleen Yancey, and John Tagg. The whole course of study will again be facilitated by our own assessment experts, Mary Allen and Amy Driscoll. The required final project means your campus can count on a concrete and immediate benefit. (ALA website, 2011)

The catch? A serious, nearly year-long commitment that included heavy reading assignments, two week-long in-person meetings, and a shorter final face-to-face meeting. However, University leaders understood the relevance of such a program, and when I was accepted, we were all thrilled.

“Outcomes assessment” had been one of my assumed competencies. After all, I had spent many years “in the trenches” of online education, and my doctorate is in Higher Education Leadership, with a focus on Curriculum and Instruction. However, the task of developing and then implementing a systematic assessment approach for an entire university was new to me. Moreover, it was relatively new to WCU in general, at least in the way that WSCUC promotes assessment, namely, at the program and institutional levels, in addition to course “objectives.” As a health care-focused university, WCU was used to measuring outcomes largely after students graduated and passed (or not) their licensure and/or Board exams. These assessment measures are, of course, still paramount to the university, but program-level outcomes, program reviews, and so on were all still new. We had only recently created Institution-level outcomes, shortly before applying for WSCUC accreditation. And measuring student outcomes within Student Affairs? This was definitely a new concept!

So, after reading my stack of new books, I set off to the first week of “class.” We converged on Holy Names University in Oakland, CA. We were to stay at the university – in the dorms (more about this later).


Authentic Learning

Many in education have heralded the idea of authentic, or real-world, learning – and assessment. The ALA is the epitome of this notion. Authentic assignments and assessments mean that classroom content and activities (and the assessments of those activities) are anchored in real-world scenarios and/or learners’ own experiences and contexts. This can help learners better apply concepts and theory (Hill, 2008).

During our in-person meetings, participants got to know each other well, both through the intense classroom time and through the experience of staying in the dorms. Drs. Mary Allen and Amy Driscoll, whom many of us already knew or knew of, brought a wealth of practical information as well as theory. In addition, ALA participants were fortunate to hear from eminent guest faculty. In our first meeting, we began to work on our culminating project: a scholarly, hopefully publishable, piece on some aspect of assessment.

While the speakers and information were all hugely beneficial, what probably benefitted me most, as I forged my new role within WCU, were the multiple role-playing activities. We were presented with a number of assessment issues, then assigned multiple roles and given the task of identifying best practices and arguing for best options in our own areas. We took on the roles of directors of assessment, faculty, academic officers… Through the reactions of fellow ALA participants and with coaching from Drs. Allan and Driscoll and peers, I became much better prepared to address myriad potential issues at my own institution; at the same time, I gained new confidence, knowing that my recommendations were backed up by theory and scholarship on best practices. I was also able to capture WCU’s experience of moving from national to regional accreditation as my final project, and I have subsequently presented on our journey at conferences. I have focused in my presentations on how pursuing WSCUC accreditation transformed our assessment processes, and I am happy to report that during the course of my ALA “term,” WCU was granted Initial Accreditation.


Impact of the ALA

The ALA gave me the confidence to help lead West Coast University toward a sustainable assessment process. It made it possible for me to acquire the tools, implement the processes, and create the structures to support assessment, and, perhaps more importantly, the people involved.

WCU has made great strides in laying the foundation for assessment practices and procedures, including utilizing an online repository for housing outcomes and aligning the outcomes at three levels: course, program, and institution. Electronic rubrics can pull data ‘back’ into that repository and the data can then be exported and aggregated/disaggregated as needed. Data can be used for program outcome reviews and can lead to recommendations not only to improve student learning but also to support budget allocation and other administrative and faculty functions. What’s more, we have linked outcomes and signature assignments to the Degree Qualification Profile and our student affairs functions. It’s exciting for WCU that we have reached these milestones – especially considering that three or four years ago, “PLO” was not even in our vocabulary!

Perhaps the largest strides have been made within Student Affairs. As Schuh and Gansemer-Topf (2010) note, “It is imperative that student affairs professionals develop programs, services, and experiences that contribute to student learning . . . that are valued at their institution and . . . are empirically verified as adding value to the student experience at their institution” (p. 6). Further, student affairs staff can make significant contributions “in campus-wide student learning outcomes assessment—by linking the student affairs mission to the institution’s mission, purpose, and strategic plan; by forming partnerships with faculty and other administrators; and by sharing their expertise on student learning and development” (Schuh & Gansemer-Topf, p. 3).

Thanks to the ALA—and a few more consultations with Dr. Allen—WCU has come up with a robust student affairs assessment structure that aligns with ILOs and allows outcomes to be measured using signature assessments, not unlike those used on the academic “side of the house.” Broad themes are broken down into more discrete department learning outcomes. These are housed in WCU’s online repository, as well. I have partnered with the director of Student Affairs to put together workshops and literature so that staff in SA are more familiar with assessment of outcomes—a concept that was foreign to most of them. They now hold their own annual outcome reviews and can identify gaps in student learning and propose action plans based on those findings, mirroring the process of academic outcome reviews and subsequent action plans.

While the infrastructure has been set up, WCU is still working toward full implementation and consistency in use, so the process described is not yet as widespread as we hope it someday will be, but the ideas are out there, and many faculty are eagerly participating in the assessment processes. They are having conversations about outcomes and rubrics and ‘calibration! WCU is in a place of growth and movement toward sustainable assessment practices.


The “Dorm Experience”

While there might be something a little unsettling about having to stay in a tiny dorm room, with no TV, toilet or shower, the experience led to incredible networking and bonding opportunities that, I would venture to say, most of us, many years into our careers, can rarely experience. There are several fellow “ALA-ers” with whom I keep touch, both on a personal and professional level. And through email, our ALA group continues to ask questions, give advice, and share challenges and victories. I have found that those of us who love assessment are a bit of a rare breed. Not everyone at WCU wants to hear about how exciting it will be for them to use Learning Outcome Manager (our online repository), and they definitely don’t think it is as exciting as I do. However, my fellow ALA-ers are eager to hear about that sort of thing.

The opportunity to be part of such a vibrant learning community (a community that grows with each subsequent class of the ALA) gives the program immense strength. Learning communities can form productive bonds that serve as connections to lifelong learning (Carmichael, 1982; Kleine-Kracht, 1993). Additionally, “the professional learning community model flows from the assumption that the core mission of formal education is not simply to ensure that students are taught but to ensure that they learn. This simple shift—from a focus on teaching to a focus on learning—has profound implications for schools” (DuFour, 2004, para. 4). Thanks to the membership in the external learning community that I acquired through the ALA, I have been able to more formally integrate learning community practices and benefits within WCU.


Afterword

Since this piece was written, I have accepted a position at Jones International University in Denver as the dean of the School of Education. One of the reasons I was hired was for my experience with assessment of student learning, which I owe to the ALA. I have formed a new assessment committee at JIU, and we are exploring, at least in discussion, competency-based curricula – which will, of course, have huge assessment implications.


References:

Carmichael, L. (1982, October). Leaders as learners: A possible dream. Educational Leadership, 40(1), 58-59.

DuFour, R. (May 2004). Schools as learning communities. Educational Leadership, 61(8), 6-11.

Hill, C. (June 16, 2008). Authentic experiences, assessment develop students’ marketable skills. Faculty Focus. Retrieved August 3, 2013, from http://www.facultyfocus.com/topic/articles/learning-styles/

Kleine-Kracht, P.A. (1993, July). The principal in a community of learning. Journal of School Leadership, 3(4), 391-399.

Schuh, J.H., & Gansemer-Topf, A.M. (December, 2010). Occasional paper 7: The role of student affairs in student learning assessment. National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.