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Lessons Learned from FIPSE Projects II - September 1993

Buttressing Assessment

AAHE's Assessment Forum

The University of Tennessee's Knoxville's Assessment Resource Center


As the assessment movement gathered momentum a decade ago, it became apparent that colleges, universities, and academic departments across the nation would need help learning the rudiments of assessment and making plans to evaluate their programs. Since there existed no resource centers dedicated to assessment, and no bibliographies or directories, institutions that had emerged as leaders in the field, such as Alverno College, Northeast Missouri State University, Miami-Dade Community College and the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, were overwhelmed with requests for guidance and information.

In 1986 FIPSE funded two projects designed to share expertise and resources on assessment with national and international audiences, and to foster and publicize advances in the field: the University of Tennessee, Knoxville's Assessment Resource Center, and the Assessment Forum of the American Association for Higher Education. During the three years that followed, the men and women who staffed these projects answered thousands of inquiries, presented and published scores of papers and reports, and organized conferences and workshops whose principal problem became how to accommodate the escalating numbers of participants. These efforts to inform, assist, and guide the dialogue on teaching and learning has helped to revitalize undergraduate education on many campuses in recent years.

Project Activities

From the 1990's vantage point, it is difficult to envision the assessment field, and indeed higher education, without AAHE's Assessment Forum and The University of Tennessee, Knoxville's (UTK) Assessment Resource Center. In the mid-1980's, however, colleges and universities were struggling in isolation with state accountability mandates, accrediting agency requirements, and internal concerns with declining student performance and the efficacy of the curriculum. The only help available came from word of mouth, impromptu exchanges, and serendipitous discoveries in the library.

Thus, the logical beginning for both AAHE and UTK was to gather in a systematic fashion the information on assessment that was dispersed throughout the country. Accordingly, the staff of the Assessment Forum and the Assessment Resource Center set about commissioning and writing papers, visiting campuses, and organizing workshops to learn about and contribute to efforts across the country.

The volume of the dissemination activities undertaken by these projects explains their emergence as major forces in assessment. Over a three-year period, UTK's Assessment Resource Center produced eight major reference works, 19 research reports, an international conference, a consortium of campus-based leaders, a cross-national study of assessment, several assessment bibliographies, and a national newsletter--Assessment Update, published by Jossey-Bass, the first newsletter dedicated to assessment in postsecondary education. It provided services to campuses in 49 states plus D.C. and Puerto Rico and five foreign countries through workshops and visits, and sent materials to 1400 colleges, universities and organizations.

Between 1986 and 1989 AAHE's Assessment Forum distributed approximately 30,000 resources to individuals and organizations. The Forum compiled available literature, commissioned and produced a series of papers (now in second printing) on various aspects of assessment, published a directory of outstanding assessment projects and organized annual conferences that drew close to 3,000 people. AAHE's own publications helped to spread the word. Two issues of the AAHE Bulletin focused on assessment, and Change magazine became a major vehicle for news and reflection on the field, especially the award-winning article in the October, 1990 issue on assessing assessment.

Major Insights And Lessons Learned

The work of these two centers was not simply dissemination however. Both were actively engaged in research and analysis as well, attempting to identify lessons and trends in assessment. Their findings include the following:

  • The workshops, readings, arguments and meditations of the last half decade have not been in vain. The higher education community has grown increasingly sophisticated about assessment. For example, the audiences of the early AAHE assessment conferences manifested above all an urgent desire to understand assessment so as to ward off its anticipated dangers. Within a year or two, however, attendees began to express a need for guidance in their search for the best models. Eventually, based on their own experience, faculty and administrators undertook a quest for alternatives to standardized instruments. At present, there is a new sense of confidence with respect to assessment on the part of higher education professionals, and a concern with keeping assessment connected to the classroom and making maximum use of its educational potential.

  • The profession's preferences regarding instruments of assessment have also shifted. An early interest in standardized tests and external examiners has given way to exploration of alternative approaches such as self-assessment, portfolios, and interviews, brought on in part by an awareness of the diversity of institutional cultures and the importance of ensuring faculty commitment.

  • Finally, as the field has matured, interest has inevitably moved towards assessing assessment. What effect is this massive effect having on what students learn? On campuses that have engaged in assessment, faculty are more likely to think about teaching in terms of student learning. Some are lecturing less and asking students to write more. There is a new willingness to experiment with technology for teaching and testing. Most importantly, one sees an emerging sense of faculty and institutional responsibility for student learning, and a commitment to monitoring and improving what students know and can do. In institutions where assessment is valued and experimented with, the conversation about teaching and learning has gained in intensity and sophistication, and ultimately students are bound to profit. As yet, though, the causal link between assessment and student learning has not been clearly established.

The ever increasing requests for information and the overflowing audiences at national and international workshops testify to the conviction in the higher education community that assessment, directly or indirectly, benefits what and how much students learn. The most obvious sign of assessment's grip on the academic consciousness is that at present both AAHE's Assessment Forum and UTK's Assessment Resource Center are not only continuing but expanding their work.

Project Continuation

UTK's Assessment Resource Center has been institutionalized by the University as the Center for Assessment Research and Development. The Center has sponsored a survey administered by six Tennessee institutions to employers of their graduates, and a study of possible adaptations of W. Edwards Deming's quality improvement philosophy to higher education. FIPSE is now also funding an Assessment Clearinghouse at UTK to evaluate and disseminate assessment instruments and methods.

The AAHE Assessment Forum has completed a second 3-year cycle which included, among other activities, the formation of an "Assessment Leadership Council." This group of practitioner-scholars examined research and development issues such as training materials, the relationship between assessment and accreditation and the role of assessment in pre-collegiate reform. A Statement of Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning was developed by this group. Printed copies of the Statement are available free (thanks to the Exxon Foundation) in packets of 25 from AAHE. AAHE has committed itself to continuing the Assessment Forum with its own funds.

The AAHE and UTK initiatives were prompted by an overwhelming need on the part of the higher education community at the inception of the assessment movement. Seven years later the clamor for guidance and information, far from abating, resounds abroad as well as throughout this country. Assessment has raised questions about teaching and learning that will stimulate and inform the international academic dialogue well into the 21st century.

Available Information

For further information about AAHE's Assessment Forum, write to:

Karl Schilling, Director
AAHE Assessment Forum
One Dupont Circle, Suite 360
Washington, DC 20036-1110

Previous AAHE Forum Directors under FIPSE funds:

Barbara D. Wright
Department of Modern and Classical Languages
University of Connecticut
Storrs, CT 06269

Pat Hutchings, Director
AAHE Teaching Initiative
American Association of Higher Education
One Dupont Circle, Suite 360
Washington, DC 20036-1110

For further information about UTK's Assessment Resource Center, write to:

Trudy W. Banta
Vice Chancellor for Planning and Institutional Improvement
Indiana University - Purdue University at Indianapolis
140 Administration Building
355 North Lansing Street
Indianapolis, IN 46202

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Last Modified: 02/23/2006