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FACULTY DEVELOPMENT: Carrie Jerrell

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Academic Assessment Plans

Academic Assessment Plans: On Not Reinventing the Wheel

Dr. Carrie Jerrell 

Spring 2016

The hatchery. (2012). Lesley Scott/Flickr

Let’s face it: academic assessment plans are never going to be a favorite topic among faculty members. They will always have trouble finding dance partners on the disco floor of academia. But they can provide information to help you continue to grow your academic program or keep it flourishing. I worked for several years as the associate director of the MFA program in creative writing here at Murray State, and one of my duties was to attend to our program’s assessment plan – designing the plan, managing the assessment tools, collecting the data, and writing the reports. I learned a great deal about assessment plans during those few years – especially in the first couple of years – and here are my two top tips if you are a newbie to the assessment plan scene, or if you’ve gotten yourself too tangled up in all the jargon and need to be reminded of the essentials:

1. You don’t have start from scratch. I’m a person who likes to have examples in front of her when I’m working on a new project and feel out of my depth in designing it. When it comes to academic assessment plans, having some concrete examples to poach or modify – or simply to give me a sense of what the elements of the plan should look like – helped me immensely. When I first started designing the MFA assessment plan, I found plenty of very general templates to use, but I really wanted examples that were more discipline specific. To that end, MFA Program Director Ann Neelon and I relied heavily on the Hallmarks of an Effective Low-Residency MFA Progam, published by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP). The AWP Hallmarks were goals we were already working toward, so we used many of them as models for our assessment plan’s goals and Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs). I also looked at models of several other MFA programs in creative writing whose assessment plans were published online, to get a sense of how they worded their SLOs, what they prioritized, how general or specific they were, and what kinds of assessment tools they used. Because assessment plans are now fairly common in higher ed, it’s very likely that you will find example plans for programs similar to yours published online. Or, if you have colleagues at other institutions working in the same discipline, ask them if they have a plan you could look at. And if your discipline has regional or national associations that publish their own goal statements, strategic plans or standards for education programs, then you may very well find a trove of information to use as you build your own assessment plan.

2. Rely on what you already do as a program.  Once you have a working list of goals or SLOs, the next step is to figure out what assessment tools will do the job of evaluating the SLOS. This is where, in my first or second year working on the assessment plan, I screwed up. For most of the SLOs we used that year, we did the smart thing: we relied on assignments every student already produced each semester and our faculty’s evaluation of the students’ performances for the information we needed for our assessment plan. Except for one assessment tool, which I invented for a particular SLO. And which totally flopped. It wasn’t that the tool itself was complicated or took a lot of energy to complete; it was just that it was something unnecessary, something inorganic, to the way our program worked. Sometimes change can be useful, but in this case, I was adding an element to the process that we didn’t need and that was easy to overlook by our faculty, so it didn’t produce enough information for us to use in our plan that year. All the other tools worked just fine. That instance taught me to stick with what we as a program know and what we already do – it lessens the workload for everyone involved while still providing information we can use to keep the program strong and healthy.

Grading class participation

Raise Your Hand If You’re Sure:
A Portrait Approach for Class Participation

Dr. Carrie Jerrell 

raised hands in class

Source: stephen piperno/Flickr

During one of my first semesters teaching at a university as a graduate assistant, a student asked me about the status of her participation grade in the course. She asked almost every Friday after class. She asked if I was going to start keeping a checklist of participation behaviors, if she could see the checklist, if perhaps she could see my checklist tally for her with updates each week, if maybe she could make a copy of the checklist and keep track of her behaviors herself – you know, as a back-up.

I had no participation checklist and zero desire to create one. Instead, I had one line in the Grades section of the syllabus that read, “Attendance and Participation – 10%.” I’m sure I made a wishy-washy pitch at the beginning of the semester for speaking up in class. I’m sure I tried various tactics to increase verbal participation as the semester went along. But beyond that, I had nothing, and as the semester progressed, my conversations with this concerned student grew ever more exhausting, and my responses ever more useless. She had assumed that raising her hand or providing a comment X times per class period would equal successful participation; she wanted the magic numbers, and I hadn’t done much to dissuade her of their existence. I hadn’t done much to address class participation at all.

Since then, I’ve worked to articulate what I mean by participation in my courses, and I’ve tried providing those articulations to students in a variety of ways.  Most recently, I’ve included on my syllabi what I call “participation portraits,” descriptions of what participation in my class looks like at the A through D-grade levels. This approach served the students and me well; if they had questions about their standing in that area, we simply went back to the syllabus, read through the list, and talked together about its specifics and their performance.

Over the past year or so, however, I’ve been thinking a lot about introversion in the classroom – how my own introversion affects my teaching style, the dynamics of introversion and extroversion among students in the course, how introversion or extroversion can color a student’s reaction to course material, etc. (Katharine Schultz’s Rethinking Classroom Participation: Listening to Silent Voices is a good resource, if you’re interested in reading more on the topic.) I decided to adapt my class participation portraits to better include and address introverted students, so that I wasn’t privileging verbal participation and punishing students for their personalities. I also decided to gather students’ thoughts on the subject at the beginning of the semester, rather than wait until individual students had questions.

Instead of including a full range of portraits on the syllabus, I presented portraits of ideal participation (see below) in class during the first week, explained the reasoning behind them, and discussed the beyond-grade-percentage value of participation. Students then wrote a one-page, informal self-portrait, in which they reflected on their strengths and weaknesses as students, their learning styles, and their tendencies regarding class participation. I encouraged them to visit www.quietrev.com  and take the introvert/extrovert personality test and include their findings in their self-portrait, too. No doubt my class will have off days when students are unresponsive in every way or I’m too frazzled/tired/fired up about the material to let them get a word in edgewise. And no doubt my views on class participation will keep evolving. Nevertheless, the results of this semester’s strategy have already been helpful to me as I plan course activities, and I’m encouraged by my students’ responses in class.

Participation portraits are easily adapted to any course and subject: just identify what types of participation you value and expect from students in your course, then describe what model participation looks like. Portraits can accommodate a range of instructional methods, too. For instance, if your course is lecture based, then verbal participation may be a lower priority, so you describe what kind of participation you value in its stead. That way, students who are accustomed to the traditional idea that class participation equals hand-raising can adapt. Portraits also give you an opportunity to discuss your teaching style and pedagogy at the beginning of the semester, so that students have an immediate, better understanding of you as a teacher and your instructional choices for the course.

Participation Portraits:

If you are naturally more extroverted: You are always prepared and able to refer to specific passages in the text. You respond to comments made by me or your fellow students, sometimes with enthusiastic but judicious support, sometimes with tactful criticism. You also respond thoughtfully and precisely to my direct questions. But you’re not interested in a soapbox; you listen and are careful to let others have their say, too. You allow for silence during discussion, thereby providing a space for reflection or for someone else to comment, instead of offering an answer for every question or filling every pause with your own response. In general, your presence at the table helps contribute to a dynamic and intellectually stimulating classroom experience for everyone present.

If you are naturally more introverted (and/or if class participation makes you anxious): You are always prepared and able to refer to specific passages in the text. You work doubly hard to be an active listener, aware that non-verbal communication such as body language and gestures can convey attention, and you take advantage of opportunities that allow you to formulate comments, questions, or responses ahead of time, online, or in small groups. You challenge yourself to increase your participation even by small increments as the semester proceeds. In general, your presence at the table helps contribute to a dynamic and intellectually stimulating classroom experience for everyone present.

FIVE TO FOLLOW

Dominoes showing number five

Image source: Clint Budd/Flickr

Five to follow

Dr. Carrie Jerrell

Jerrell is an Assistant Professor of English and a Faculty Teaching Fellow in Experiential Learning. She shared five resources -- blogs, news sites, individuals, social media accounts or websites -- that she finds inspiring or helpful about teaching, professional development or higher ed.
  1.  The Chronicle of Higher Ed.

  2. Slate.com’s education section, Schooled.

  3. The Instagram account @subwaybookreview. It also has a companion website: Subway Book Review. I love the set-up of the brief, informal book reviews. People’s selections are always so varied! I also find it heartening to see so many people reading “real” paper books instead of using tablets or their phones.

  4. The weekly Life & Business feature on the lifestyle blog DesignSponge. It contains great interviews with people who’ve started their own businesses in some area of design. Even though the specifics of my job aren’t like any of these entrepreneurs, I find their observations on the creative process, leadership roles, time management, and balancing work & life to be informative and usually very applicable to my job.

  5. The library of Fora.tv. A massive, digital warehouse of free videos from conferences, festivals, and summits on just about every topic imaginable. For teachers, a good place to start would be the recent Education Summit hosted by The Atlantic.