A culture of assessment? of improvement?

Jeanne Slattery

Jeanne Slattery

Jeanne M. Slattery

Words matter. Psychologists used to talk about morons and imbeciles, but those previously “professional” terms garnered bad baggage. Similarly, Congress recently voted to drop the terms mental retardation and lunatic (in 2010 and 2012), “recognizing that such language is often obsolete, imprecise and fosters stigma and prejudice” (Carolla, n.d.).

I was recently at a workshop where, instead of talking about a “culture of assessment,” they talked about a “culture of improvement.” What I heard was a shift from focusing on what we are doing wrong, to how we can help our students learn even more effectively.

I’m sure that many people who’ve spoken about creating a culture of assessment never meant it the way I heard it. I believe they meant to focus on the culture aspect of the phrase (that we should all value and naturally consider assessment), but I heard and believe others also heard that we were being tested and were already judged as failing.

It doesn’t help that we often use “assessment” as synonymous with “test.”

In thinking about this change of phrase (from a culture of assessment to one of improvement), I began thinking about other options. Maybe ours can become a culture of tinkerers, where we are always exploring the teaching and learning processes, thinking about what works and what doesn’t. In fact, in my department and with friends outside my department, we are always asking such questions and considering how we can better handle the inevitable problems we face. How do you help students better understand correlations? What do you do to help students with their writing? Do rubrics help?

Maybe ours can become a culture passionate about teaching and learning. As people passionate about our teaching and learning, we expect to keep tinkering, trying to do better, just as those of us who are passionate runners are always trying to up our game, and those of us who love to travel are always exploring new places.


Rachel Ignotofsky (2013). Available for purchase from https://www.etsy.com/listing/210290943/women-in-science-4-art-print-deal

I’d like to believe that all teachers are already passionate, committed tinkerers, but that would be delusional: A culture of assessment/improvement/tinkering/passionate teachers is not ubiquitous. The exemplar that most sticks in my craw is that of my oldest daughter’s science teacher (now retired) who gave her a mimeographed handout during a period when mimeographs were outdated asking her to identify The Great Men of Science. The emphasis on Men was intended; he argued that there were no great women of science. (I wondered what Madame Curie, Rosalind Franklin, Barbara McClintock, Jane Goodall, Rachel Carson, and others would think.) My daughter’s friends’ parents reported getting the same handout when they’d had him as a teacher. Teachers like my daughter’s occur at every level and give us all a bad name yet they are not the whole story. My younger daughter’s science teacher was thought-provoking and exciting.

As I approach finals week, I am sitting back and reviewing my semester. I have been thinking about what worked and what worked less well. I have been tweaking my syllabi all semester for the next time I teach these courses. I am making changes in my assignments and rubrics. I am using (and modeling) the same metacognitive processes I want my students to practice.

Accrediting bodies and other outsiders often see and focus on problems like my daughter’s science teacher; nonetheless, we are or can be a culture of assessment/improvement/tinkering/passionate teachers. How can we more effectively communicate the ongoing assessment that many of us engage in?


Carolla, B. (n.d.). Congress votes to remove “lunatic” from federal law. National Alliance on Mental Illness. Retrieved from http://www.nami.org/Template.cfm?Section=court_watch1&template=/ContentManagement/ContentDisplay.cfm&ContentID=148228

Jeanne M. Slattery is a professor of psychology at Clarion University. She is interested in thinking about what makes teaching and learning successful, and generally describes herself as a learner-centered teacher. She has written two books, Counseling diverse clients: Bringing context into therapy, and Empathic counseling: Meaning, context, ethics, and skill (with C. Park), and is writing Trauma, meaning, and spirituality: Research and clinical perspectives. She can be contacted at jslattery@clarion.edu

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