Assessment: Truly clear and simple

– Jeanne M. Slattery

More and more, faculty are being asked to demonstrate that they are providing a useful commodity to the public. Keeling and Hersh, for example, argue that “higher education is overpriced if it fails to deliver on its most basic promise: learning. Value is low when…too many of our college graduates are not prepared to think critically and creatively, speak and write clearly, solve problems, comprehend complex issues, accept responsibility and accountability, take the perspective of others, or meet the expectations of employers” (Lederman, 2012, para. 9).

41oK7atw-eL._SX385_BO1,204,203,200_Although I love counting and measuring things, and believe that we should demonstrate that we’ve done what we’ve said we’re going to do, I’ve had a difficult time transitioning to departmental assessment. First, what kinds of things should we assess and how? Are my tests and assignments alone enough or is something more needed? Second, it is difficult to get the clean, easily interpretable data that the scientist in me would like. Third, my day is more than full before adding the extra work of program assessment—and I’ve seen the very labor intensive (though impressive) way that the psychology department at Mansfield University has approached this process. I know that I am not alone in working many hours in excess of “full time,” and haven’t relished having additional work added to my load.

As a result, it was with significant pleasure that I read Barbara Walvoord’s short, easily-read, and sensible Assessment clear and simple: A practical guide for institutions, departments, and general education, published by Jossey-Bass in 2010. That she is coming here this week to talk about writing and program assessments pleases me, as it seems to demonstrate the university’s commitment to an honest and useful assessment process.

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ve been a big fan of Walvoord’s for years. Going to her workshops on Writing Across the Curriculum strengthened and transformed my teaching. Regardless, her book seems to have been written for me. Most particularly, she suggests that assessment should be simple and not add additional work to our already full loads. She argues that assessment does not need to rule out confounding variables and competing explanations in the way that other research attempts to do; instead, the goal is to determine whether graduating students have met departmental learning outcomes and, if not, identify what we can do to better approach our goals.

Screen Shot 2016-01-15 at 1.07.19 PMSpecifically, the department or program needs to:

  1. identify departmental goals,
  2. measure whether graduates have attained these goals using current (or refined) course assessments, and
  3. “close the loop,” using information gathered in #2 to strengthen the program’s ability to meet its goals.

Our assessments of student outcomes inform our future teaching and program development. When we aren’t meeting our learning goals, then we should consider what we can do to do so more effectively. As Walvoord  (2010) observed, “it’s not the assessment itself that leads to improvement, it’s the action taken” (p. 10).

Although this sounds like a simple process – plan, assess, close the loop – our department assessment committee has struggled. Identifying good goals and assessments is easier said than done. Are we assessing the most central aspects of our programs? Do our assessments really assess what we want them to? When we identify problems, what do they mean? If, for example, our students struggle with a particular writing assignment, is that a problem with the assignment, their readiness for it, our rubric, or even our ability to engage them with the assignment?

Our department has worked hard on assessment for the last several years, but began making more progress once we organized our thinking using Walvoord’s book. Reading it energized me and increased my commitment to assessment in a way that other articles and workshops have not. I’m considering how my courses help students meet our discipline’s student learning outcomes (American Psychological Association, 2013). I’m thinking about where my students aren’t meeting these goals (e.g., they struggle with evaluating theories), and what I can do to help them better meet these goals. I’m thinking more about process goals and less about course content—although I still believe the latter is important.

Our department’s work on assessment will continue to be bumpy. We need to examine how our courses help students meet departmental goals. We have been creating rubrics for the last several years and have found that our students have liked them, and they have been useful in our grading and our assessment process; however, writing good rubrics is difficult. (There are strong examples on the Internet that can be useful starting points.) We need to identify where we are not yet meeting our goals and close those gaps. We need a stronger buy-in from our whole department, not just our assessment committee. We need to believe that honest assessments won’t be used against us (either individual faculty or departments). Regardless, Walvoord (2010) has provided a clear and accessible path for thoughtfully assessing our program’s ability to facilitate student learning.


American Psychological Association. (2013). APA guidelines for the undergraduate psychology major. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved from

Lederman, D. (2012). “We’re losing our minds.” Inside Higher Ed. Retrieved from

Walvoord, B. E. (2010). Assessment clear and simple: A practical guide for institutions, departments, and general education. New York, NY: Jossey-Bass

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, an 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

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