Handbook on Excellence in Learning and Pedagogy


Historical Background of Assessment

A. National Scene

Assessment, as we understand it today, appeared on the national scene in the late seventies as a consequence of changing social needs. Employers complained that college graduates were ill-prepared for the demands of the workplace as far as communication, thinking, and problem-solving skills were concerned. Legislators from increasing numbers of states called for accountability from institutions receiving tax dollars used to educate and train youth for life and work. 

Since the 1970s, institutions both private and public have sometimes looked at assessment as a bothersome matter of satisfying external authorities. Some teachers resented what they saw as intrusions on the life of the academy and threats to academic freedom; some believed that assessment was just another means for boards of education or trustees to ride herd on faculties; others could not understand what all the fuss was about since teachers had always assessed � using tests and papers to measure and evaluate student learning. 

In the early years of an �assessment movement,� faculties and institutions aimed largely at meeting minimally or even avoiding the expectations of others; some rushed to adopt standardized tests as a way of proving competence and quality. Gradually, however, they became less satisfied with the use of standardized instruments and more interested in what colleagues in a variety of disciplines were discovering about �student-centered learning.�  

Teachers began to think more positively about assessment as a way to help students learn better. How can, they asked, the quantity as well as the quality of student learning be improved? Are students really learning what we believe we are teaching? How does four years of education cumulatively contribute to college-level learning? Should each teacher be responsible for more than the learning in courses he or she teaches? Should all teachers in a department take responsibility for the major? Should all teachers at the college together take responsibility for the degree?

At the present time, many teachers have come to understand assessment less as a matter of quantifying, accounting, auditing, validating, and documenting, whether for state boards, accrediting associations, or even in-house administrators. Instead, they regard assessment as a means for teachers and students to cooperate so that learning is enhanced and improved. 

The questions teachers who use "assessment" ask those questions good teachers have always asked: how do I know students are learning what I think I�m teaching; what constitutes acceptable (and more than acceptable) performance; how do I help students to identify competence and quality (to understand and use my standards); what can I do to help my students succeed?

B. The King's College Scene

King�s College has become a widely recognized leader in assessment largely because it anticipated much of what happened nationally. The College did not do so, however, without pains of growth and change of its own. 
At the beginning of the 1970�s, King�s had implemented a core curriculum that generally followed trends developed in the sixties, a curriculum that the faculty soon discovered fell far short of expectations. Faculty surveys conducted several times by the Curriculum Committee revealed continuing and troubling weaknesses. The core allowed students too much choice among a smorgasbord of courses; students often avoided the exact courses they needed to repair serious weaknesses in their thinking and writing skills as well as courses many faculty regarded as essential to the liberally educated person; the core was politicized as departments vied for �representation�; the core had no sequence, no integrity, no character that would give students both a common experience and a distinctive King�s College education.

Addressing these issues, the Curriculum Committee asked faculty project teams to design completely new courses and, among other charges, to express a course�s objectives (�measurable within the course�) and goals (�not measurable in a conventional sense but desirable nonetheless�) in terms of what students should know and be able to do as a consequence of taking the course. As faculty met this challenge over a number of years of hard work and frequent meetings, a new Core Curriculum took shape. The faculty as well as the Curriculum Committee realized at the same time that certain objectives appeared repeatedly; those repeated objectives came to be translated into eight �transferable skills of liberal learning,� that is, skills the faculty obviously wanted students to transfer from assignment to assignment, course to course, Core course to major courses, college experience to life and work after college:

critical thinking
effective writing
effective oral communication
creative thinking and problem solving
quantitative reasoning
library and information literacy
computer competency
moral reasoning

The faculty�s understanding of these skills evolved gradually and was reflected even in the names given these skills: for example, moral reasoning was originally called �values awareness.� Also, a five-year faculty development program contributed greatly to this understanding and to preparing faculty to develop and assess these skills across the curriculum. Participation in national workshops focused on student-centered learning strategies further equipped faculty to help students become active rather than passive learners.

Even as the new Core Curriculum was implemented in the fall of 1985, the faculty�s understanding of assessment began to take shape as did the assessment program described below. While the King�s faculty embarked on this new approach in higher education, they had little idea that they had, in fact, anticipated the �conditions of excellence� widely publicized in the National Institutes of Education 1984 report, Involvement in Learning: Realizing the Potential of American Higher Education:

1. increasing student involvement in learning;
2. establishing higher expectations for student learning by faculty; and
3. using assessment and feedback to redirect and to enhance student learning.

Initially, the College received funding for faculty activities from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education, the Sordoni Foundation, and the Title III Strengthening Developing Institutions Program, U.S. Department of Education. 

Dr. Donald W. Farmer, Vice-President for Academic Affairs, detailed the history of these efforts and defined the conceptual framework for curricular reform and assessment in his book, Enhancing Student Learning: Emphasizing Essential Competencies in Academic Programs (King�s College Press, 1988). At about the same time Dr. Farmer was composing his book, Thomas A. Angelo (Boston College) and K. Patricia Cross (University of California, Berkeley) chose King�s College to be one of the pilot campuses for the national classroom research and assessment project. This opportunity provided a �micro-level" assessment focus for faculty in their individual classes, helping to confirm the faculty�s understanding that assessment can be used to improve student learning and that a good assessment strategy is a good teaching strategy. The books resulting from Angelo and Cross�s work are cited among the references

Since the mid 1980�s, then, the Comprehensive Assessment Program has continued to evolve. Teaching and learning have continued to be energized and inspired in large measure by assessment efforts. The work of the King�s College faculty has improved the learning of students and led to widespread recognition, most recently in 1995 as the College received a TIAA/CREF Certificate of Excellence in the Hesburgh Award competition for exemplary faculty development programs: "In recognition of an outstanding Faculty Development Program that has shown great success in enhancing teaching skills that enrich the intellectual welfare of undergraduate students.� 

King�s faculty have been invited to speak at national conferences and institutes; faculty teams have given workshops to faculty and administrators at colleges from coast to coast; faculty have authored articles on the King�s approach to assessment in journals and books. Here on campus, faculty have offered two �case studies� on integrating curriculum, teaching and assessment (1993 and 1995) that have attracted national audiences.

Whether at conferences, workshops, or case studies, participants have consistently responded with enthusiasm for the work King�s teachers are doing: on the one hand, they are pleased with the reasonable and practical nature of the approach; on the other hand, they are often awed by how much the faculty have accomplished and by their eagerness to do even better. One recent case study participant put it this way: �I have never met before a faculty who cares so much about how well students learn.�

Everything the faculty does, they tell audiences, is a draft; they are always working to do better at helping King�s students to be better learners and themselves to become better teachers. All King�s faculty, present and future, are invited to join in the enterprise. 

C. A Definition of Assessment at  King's College

A clear understanding of what assessment means at King�s College begins with the admission that all facets of an institution can be assessed: the school�s mission, its major curricula, its Core Curriculum, a particular course or sequence of courses, and instruction, for example. Also, a variety of persons may assume the role of assessors: a state department of education, an accrediting association, a professional organization, a board of directors, administrators, department chairpersons. Moreover, the purposes of assessment vary: to validate, accredit, eliminate, reform, improve.

While all of these kinds of assessment or evaluation go on at King�s College, as at any institution of higher learning, the assessment this handbook concerns is assessment as a means of enhancing and improving the learning of students. Consequently, a definition of assessment can begin with the Latin root of the word � assideo � which means to sit at a person�s side; to give comfort, advice, and protection. In the King�s setting, it also means defining goals for their learning that students can understand; designing performances that provide students with multiple opportunities to achieve those goals; and defining criteria to judge student performance that can be shared with them so that they can meet faculty expectations. King�s faculty believe it is not enough for a teacher to know excellence when he or she sees it; students need to be empowered both to recognize excellence and consciously to aim for it.

What are the benefits of making assessment a natural part of the process of teaching and learning? Students enjoy more detailed syllabi with objectives for their learning rather than generalized descriptions of what a course or instructor hopes to do. Given beforehand both written guidelines for assignments and the criteria the instructor will use to judge their work, students perform better. With clearer and speedier feedback, students gain a greater sense of accomplishment, a clearer understanding of strengths and weaknesses to work on, a sense of ownership and responsibility for their own learning.

Faculty, at the same time, can see more clearly the relationship between what they are teaching and what students are learning, adjust syllabi and calendars more easily and effectively to meet student learning needs, give students more timely and useful feedback, encourage students to transfer learning from assignment to assignment, connect learning in the Core to learning in major courses, and benefit from self-assessment to become more effective in the classroom. 

At its best, assessment at King�s is a conversation: between teacher and student, teacher and teacher, teachers and academic administrators.


URL: http://departments.kings.edu/celt/handbook/histbgrd.html
Last Revision: 20 July 2005
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