In an Age of Assessment, Some Useful Reminders

by Mark Wiley
Director, Faculty Center for Professional Development
Cal State University, Long Beach

This text is taken from the Exchange Journal. ©2003 by Mark Wiley.

While it has often been argued, it is nonetheless worth keeping in mind that the most important function of assessment is to use it as a major means for continuous improvement in our teaching and in the instructional programs we offer on our respective campuses. None of the various assessment activities we conduct are particularly useful if they do not help faculty be more effective in the classroom. Consequently, whatever resistance faculty may exhibit (whether overtly or covertly) toward "doing assessment" might be misinterpreted by administrators and assessment leaders as faculty refusing to do additional work or as an intrusion into faculty members' private classroom spaces. Administrators may not see that faculty resistance can also indicate that effective teachers perceive assessment activities to be disconnected from the real work of the classroom--advancing student learning--work that brings genuine pleasure to them. Deep divisions can therefore develop on our campuses if those responsible for assessment mistake means for ends.

By keeping in mind the primary purpose of assessment, we can avoid the sort of rhetoric that may cast it as a policing function designed to make sure faculty are doing a good job in the classroom or as another version of institutional bean-counting that reduces what is most important about teaching to numbers, charts, graphs, and spread sheets of various kinds. We especially need to steer clear of rhetoric that frames assessment as something that faculty must now do in addition to everything else they already do. Instead, we need to present it as what effective teachers normally do--or could do more self-consciously--to discover whether the means they use to share their love and knowledge of their disciplines and the subjects they teach are helping their students actually discover for themselves why their teachers "get so excited by this stuff."

I have only been working in faculty development for a little over a year, but I previously directed a large composition program for eight years. From these experiences working with dozens of faculty, I have found that when faculty complain about their students or about problems they are experiencing in their classrooms, usually they also express their dismay that their students don't share the same enthusiasm for their subjects. In the worst cases, the faculty members themselves have fallen out of love with what they teach and simply have not recognized this fact. This sort of "burn-out" is much more difficult to deal with because losing the passion for what one teaches is tremendously hard to admit, let alone accept. One's entire career could be in jeopardy of seeming irrelevance with this admission.

It is, then, this passion that faculty feel about the subjects they teach that motivates and directs their attention to what their students are learning. It is also this passion that can make assessment attractive to these instructors as a means to improve continually what and how they teach. Assessment is used optimally when it becomes a form of inquiry, an inquiry into how what is done in the classroom either opens up or shuts down that psychological space into which students must enter if they are ever to glimpse the beautiful logic and symmetry of a mathematical formula or of a Gothic cathedral, of a cogent philosophical argument or of an elegant solution, that comes in sudden insight after many long hours of hard work on a difficult problem.

I don't think we have to reflect very long to recognize that some of our best moments in teaching occur when a student says, "Ah, now I see what you have been talking about all along. It all makes perfect sense!" Or consider the genuine pleasure we feel when one of our struggling students--one who we feared might fail--smiles for the first time all semester and we have the opportunity to say honestly to him or her, "That essay was much improved over the last draft you wrote. Well done!"

The real joy of teaching emerges when teachers find that their love for the subjects they teach is reciprocated in their students' learning, a sharing of our disciplines in a way both teacher and student can recognize. This joy motivates us each semester to return to the classroom with renewed energy. It inspires us to discard previous lecture notes, to try out new approaches to a seemingly tired topic, and to adapt old approaches better to teach new knowledge.

We therefore forget at our own peril that our love for the subject and for sharing it is a fundamental source of our joy in being a good teacher. Perhaps because it is so simple and obvious, this source is often overlooked, or it is disguised as one among several other components of effective teaching. Consider the list that Mary Allen published in a recent "Viewpoints" column. Allen offered her list based on a survey of faculty participants at the 2002 CSU Teacher-Scholar Summer Institute. Faculty were asked to "identify one characteristic of the best teacher" they ever had. The characteristics most noted were teachers who were "enthusiastic" in the classroom "and who demonstrated respect and support for students through their encouragement, compassion, and acceptance of student effort."

"Enthusiasm" also tops the list of Maryellen Weimer's 1993 monograph, Improving Your Classroom Teaching, a review of research in the area of teaching effectiveness. She identified the following five elements of effective classroom teaching and used them to organize her book:

  1. Enthusiasm
  2. Preparation and organization
  3. Ability to stimulate student thought and interest
  4. Clarity
  5. Knowledge and love of content (7).

Besides enthusiasm, which is an admittedly difficult phenomenon to define and measure, I suspect the items on this list come as no surprise to faculty who have been teaching awhile. Yet these lists do not show us any relationships between and among items. For example, what is the connection between the first and last items on the list? I have been arguing that a love of content is essential for creating the kind of enthusiasm that students can recognize. I would also argue that the other four items follow naturally from knowledge and love of content.

Because effective teachers love the subjects they teach, they express this love primarily through some show of enthusiasm, a form that fits individual teaching styles and personalities. Moreover, this love and the desire to share their knowledge with their students lead teachers regularly to consider how they might better organize their courses and present course content in clear and engaging ways.

I hope it is understood that by "love" I do not mean a teacher's attention extended toward students in a way that is manipulative. Using students to satisfy one's personal ego is never acceptable. Rather, the love I mean is actually impersonal. It includes a love of content but is also much broader. We communicate as best we can because we firmly believe that the knowledge we share with our students will be inherently good for them. This love extended to our students likewise reflects our respect for and recognition of them as individuals who have the right to learn and who vary in their particular pedagogical needs and styles of learning. Consequently, in sharing what we know with our students, in trying to engage them in the subject matter, we are continually looking for confirmation through evidence of some kind that they have understood. That sign of students' recognition spurs teachers' further efforts to help students go deeper into the subject matter, to explore its complexity and connectedness to other phenomena.

Effective teachers, then, are always "assessing" their students. They are continually "tuned in" to them to see if what has been taught in the classroom (real or virtual) has engaged the students in their charge. This "tuning in" I consider a form of what the educator Max van Manen calls "pedagogical thoughtfulness." It is a thoughtfulness that involves a continuous re-thinking of how we present the subjects we love to the diverse students who appear in our classrooms, and it is the basis of the tactfulness we utilize in interacting with our students who, if teaching is to be truly successful, must trust and rely on our judgments. Consequently, if assessment can serve us in this continuous process of re-thinking the what and the how of our classroom actions--if, as a form of inquiry, it can help us become more pedagogically thoughtful--then assessment truly will become a normal and essential element of the effective teacher's repertoire of sound classroom strategies.

Works Cited