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NILOA Guest Viewpoints

We’ve invited learning outcomes experts and thought leaders to craft a Viewpoint. We hope that these pieces will spark further conversations and actions that help advance the field. To join the conversation, click the link below the Viewpoint. You can also sign up here to receive monthly newsletters that headline these pieces along with NILOA updates, current news items, and upcoming conferences.

 

Addressing Assessment Fatigue by Keeping the Focus on Learning
George Kuh and Pat Hutchings, NILOA

 

It seems everywhere we go, we hear from faculty and staff who are overwhelmed by the number of initiatives they have been asked to implement in recent years. Now sufficiently common that it has acquired a name—initiative fatigue—this syndrome is so widespread that many faculty and staff have become jaded toward new initiatives. As one person described the situation to us, her campus has been plagued by a case of CAVE: Colleagues Against Virtually Everything.

Initiative fatigue is real. It takes the form of a heightened psychological and physiological state in which faculty and staff members feel inundated by and conflicted about the number of improvement efforts introduced on their campus. Assessment can exacerbate initiative fatigue for two reasons. First, most new efforts have an assessment component, which adds yet another layer of required effort. Second, many faculty still view assessment as an “add on,” an extra set of tasks independent of evaluating class assignments and giving grades, a situation almost guaranteed to produce fatigue. Student affairs staff are similarly at risk when they are asked to produce evidence of the impact of students’ out-of-class experiences on valued learning outcomes (Schuh & Gansamer-Topf, 2010). But assessment, as we will see, can also help to mitigate initiative fatigue.

Some Ways to Deal with Initiative Fatigue There is no single blueprint for ameliorating or avoiding initiative fatigue, but some approaches are promising. Here are three of the strategies we discussed in our chapter in Using Evidence to Improve Higher Education (Kuh, Ikenberry, Jankowski, Cain, Ewell, Hutchings &Kinzie, 2015).

Sell the Merits of the Initiative

When it comes to institutional change, a first-order step is to convince opinion leaders among the faculty, for instance, and department chairs that the idea has the potential to affect student and institutional performance in a positive way. Of course, there are no guarantees that a program or policy successfully implemented at another institution or in even another unit on a campus will have comparable effects when tried elsewhere. But at the least, there should be a strong, persuasive rationale presented—buttressed whenever possible with persuasive, high-quality assessment evidence—before attempting to mobilize human and other resources to launch another set of activities.

Hold Large-Scale Events

Convening large groups can be an effective way to illustrate overlaps and complementarity with campus priorities and to highlight how students and the institution will benefit from the convergence of efforts. Another benefit of such gatherings is clarifying the language used to represent the new work. What, after all, is a portfolio? What is a capstone or culminating experience? What is meant by the term proficiency? These are matters that must be fleshed out and agreed upon over time, and a public event is a good place to begin to clarify the goals of these various initiatives and to highlight the ways they support one another.

Declare a Fixed Length Moratorium on New Initiatives

Institutional leaders can dampen the effects of initiative fatigue by enacting a moratorium on new initiatives, with the proviso that part of the time (say, an academic year) will be spent taking stock -- deciding what to drop or scale back in order to create some space for worthwhile new ideas and efforts that address pressing, high-priority institutional needs. The campus can still maintain improvement momentum during this time by doing a comprehensive inventory of the variety of initiatives recently implemented and their effects, however measured. Especially at institutions where a small number of faculty and staff routinely are recruited to lead new initiatives, the psychological benefits of a moratorium cannot be overstated.

To have the desired effects, these and other efforts to address initiative fatigue must clearly demonstrate the connections between the initiative and student learning, which brings us to the special role of assessment.

It’s About the Learning

Maintaining assessment’s laser-like focus on learning outcomes means keeping evidence about student performance in view. Focusing on gathering and using evidence of student accomplishment can help create synergies between functions and roles that often operate independently of one another, a condition that exacerbates initiative fatigue. Most important among these is connecting assessment to the work of faculty in their own classrooms. Assessment was originally framed in ways that distanced it from teaching and learning, positioning assessment as an “exoskeletal” phenomenon, as something added on and external to the interactions between teachers and students (Ewell, 2013). In this scenario, assessment has often and understandably been a point of faculty resistance, cynicism, and fatigue. Fortunately, reports from provosts (Kuh, Jankowski, Ikenberry, & Kinzie, 2014) and program heads (Ewell, Paulson, & Kinzie, 2011) suggest we may be on the verge of a tipping point as campuses increasingly rely on assessment approaches that draw directly on students’ work in the classroom: portfolios, rubrics, capstone projects and performances, and the like.

Last Words

Every campus is subject to the potentially debilitating effects of initiative fatigue. After all is said and done, the best antidote for assessment-associated initiative fatigue is for faculty to see that good evidence about what helps and does not help their students succeed is also the route to more effective, efficient, and gratifying work as teachers. Understood and enacted in this way, assessment is not just the right thing to do—an essential instructional responsibility that only faculty can adequately perform—but also the smart thing.

REFERENCES

Brigham, S.E. (1996, November–December). Large scale events: New ways of working across the organization. Change, 28–37.

Ewell, P.T. (2013). The Lumina Degree Qualifications Profile: Implications for assessment. Urbana: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Ewell, P.T., Paulson, K., & Kinzie, J. (2011). Down and in: Assessment practices at the program level. Urbana: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Kuh, G.D., Ikenberry, S.O., Jankowski, N., Cain, T.R., Ewell, P.T., Hutchings, P., & Kinzie, J. (2015). Using evidence of student learning to improve higher education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kuh, G.D., Jankowski, N., Ikenberry, S., & Kinzie, J. (2014, January). Knowing what students know and can do: The current state of learning outcomes assessment at U.S. colleges and universities. Urbana: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Schuh, J.H. & Gansamer-Topf, A.M. (2010). The role of student affairs in student learning assessment (NILOA Occasional Paper No. 7). Urbana: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment.

Check out our past Viewpoints:

Evidence of Student Learning: What Counts and What Matters for Improvement
Pat Hutchings, Jillian Kinzie, and George D. Kuh, NILOA

Using Evidence to Make a Difference
Stan Ikenberry and George Kuh, NILOA

Assessment - More than Numbers
Sheri Barrett

Challenges and Opportunities in Assessing the Capstone Experience in Australia
Nicolette Lee

Making Assessment Count
Maggie Bailey

Some Thoughts on Assessing Intercultural Competence
Darla K. Deardorff

Catalyst for Learning: ePortfolio-Based Outcomes Assessment
Laura M. Gambino and Bret Eynon

The Interstate Passport: A New Framework for Transfer
Peter Quigley, Patricia Shea, and Robert Turner

College Ratings: What Lessons Can We Learn from Other Sectors?
Nicholas Hillman

Guidelines to Consider in Being Strategic about Assessment
Larry A. Braskamp and Mark E. Engberg

An "Uncommon" View of the Common Core
Paul L. Gaston

Involving Undergraduates in Assessment: Documenting Student Engagement in Flipped Classrooms
Adriana Signorini & Robert Oschner

The Surprisingly Useful Practice of Meta-Assessment
Keston H. Fulcher & Megan Rodgers Good

Student Invovlement in Assessment: A 3-Way Win
Josie Welsh

Internships: Fertile Ground for Cultivating Integrative Learning
Alan W. Grose

What if the VSA Morphed into the VST?
George Kuh

Where is Culture in Higher Education Assessment and Evaluation?
Nora Gannon-Slater, Stafford Hood, and Thomas Schwandt

Embedded Assessment and Evidence-Based Curriculum Mapping: The Promise of Learning Analytics
Jane M. Souza

The DQP and the Creation of the Transformative Education Program at St. Augustine University
St. Augustine University

Why Student Learning Outcomes Assessment is Key to the Future of MOOCs

Wallace Boston & Jennifer Stephens

Measuring Success in Internationalization: What are Students Learning?
Madeleine F. Green

Demonstrating How Career Services Contribute to Student Learning
Julia Panke Makela & Gail S. Rooney

The Culture Change Imperative for Learning Assessment
Richard H. Hersh & Richard P. Keeling

Comments on the Commentaries about "Seven Red Herrings"
Roger Benjamin

Ethics and Assessment: When the Test is Life Itself
Edward L. Queen

Discussing the Data, Making Meaning of the Results
Anne Goodsell Love

Faculty Concerns About Student Learning Outcomes Assessment
Janet Fontenot

What to Consider When Selecting an Assessment Management System
R. Stephen RiCharde

AAHE Principles of Good Practice: Aging Nicely A Letter from Pat Hutchings, Peter Ewell, and Trudy Banta

The State of Assessment of Learning Outcomes Eduardo M. Ochoa

What is Satisfactory Performance? Measuring Students and Measuring Programs with Rubrics
Patricia DeWitt

Being Confident about Results from Rubrics Thomas P. Judd, Charles Secolsky & Clayton Allen

What Assessment Personnel Need to Know About IRBs
Curtis R. Naser

How Assessment and Institutional Research Staff Can Help Faculty with Student Learning Outcomes Assessment
Laura Blasi

Why Assess Student Learning? What the Measuring Stick Series Revealed
Gloria F. Shenoy

Putting Myself to the Test
Ama Nyamekye

From Uniformity to Personalization: How to Get the Most Out of Assessment
Peter Stokes

Transparency Drives Learning at Rio Salado College
Vernon Smith

Navigating a Perfect Storm
Robert Connor

Avoiding a Tragedy of the Commons in Postsecondary Education
Roger Benjamin

In Search for Standard of Quality
Michael Bassis

It is Time to Make our Academic Standards Clear
Paul E. Lingenfelter