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2016

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CFI Interview

Kelly Foelber, a third-year student in the Assessment and Measurement Ph.D. program at James Madison University (JMU), had the chance to sit down with Dr. Carol Hurney and Dr. Cara Meixner of the Center for Faculty Innovation (CFI) at JMU. Currently Dr. Hurney serves as the Executive Director of the CFI and is also a Professor in the Department of Biology. Dr. Meixner is currently the Assistant Director of the Teaching Area within CFI and is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Graduate Psychology. The conversation between Foelber, Dr. Hurney, and Dr. Meixner focused on the collaborative work between CARS and CFI on an initiative aimed at improving student learning at the program level, Learning by Design (LID).

Foelber began the interview by asking Hurney and Meixner to describe the LID program. Briefly, LID combines CARS’ program-level assessment expertise with CFI’s faculty development expertise. The joint effort is designed to both improve student learning and to improve the culture of learning assessment. Dr. Hurney stated the LID program is a “natural alignment between the kind of work we feel faculty offices should do and the work that’s going on at CARS”, creating a space for faculty development at the program level. The fact that CFI and CARS staff are faculty themselves allows them to more readily “work with faculty and help them… to rethink their curriculum, their courses, with long-term assessment goals in mind.”

The effects of LID are not only felt by students. According to Dr. Meixner, another focus is “improving the academic culture of the institution” as the faculty who worked with the program “felt more involved and could feel the increased quality of work.” Dr. Hurney stated the program, “creates space for them [faculty] to have conversations” about curriculum development. Dr. Hurney and Dr. Meixner agreed that the program had a higher impact on faculty than they first believed it would, and that the program kept the process of program development at the forefront, not lost in history.

Given the more intentional collaboration between faculty development (CFI) and assessment (CARS) Foelber asked Hurney and Meixner what they believe assessment experts can learn from faculty developers and vice versa. Dr. Hurney and Dr. Meixner isolated the idea of finding a common ground between assessment experts and faculty developers. Specifically, through their work with Assessment & Measurement Ph.D. graduate Dr. Megan Rogers-Good, Drs. Hurney and Meixner realized a connection between theoretical models of faculty development used by CFI and the learning assessment cycle used by CARS. Regarding what faculty developers can learn from assessment experts, Dr. Meixner stated that assessment helps facilitate conversations with faculty; “knowing what the [assessment reporting] process is and how those results are calibrated and understood, knowing about how that experience works, has made me a better consultant.” This knowledge allows faculty developers to help other faculty understand the assessment process and, importantly, to understand the real purpose of assessment. Both Dr. Hurney and Dr. Meixner stressed that the assessment methods brought by CARS to the LID program provided structure to the vision of LID because the developers and faculty have direct access to a wealth of expertise from assessment and pedagogy specialists.

Dr. Hurney

When asked to give their advice to other universities who are interested in fostering relationships between assessment offices and faculty development offices, Dr. Meixner and Dr. Hurney shared numerous insights. Some lessons Dr. Hurney learned while working with LID were to “look for agents of change, foster some relationships with them, get the process moving and then slowly bring in other members of the department”, while also “being mindful that the faculty need guidance in that it is best when [both faculty development and assessment] type people are there together.” She pointed out that there is a need for collaboration between the three parties: assessment offices, faculty development offices, and faculty. Dr. Hurney believes there is a need for “better benchmarking of where the department is for a base measurement of the teaching in the department.” Benchmarking is a key step to understanding a department prior to planning activities that a department needs to go through with LID. Dr. Hurney said “the heart of the work we need to do as faculty developers is to help faculty rethink how they encourage student learning through the assignment design piece.” Dr. Hurney also mentioned that the collaboration has required a major time investment, with the different parties meeting regularly.

Dr. Meixner noted that the reason the joint effort between CARS and CFI is so successful is due to their long history of working together. CARS and CFI have spent a great deal of time working together and have “isolated initiatives to help secure a foundation of reciprocity and trust” with each other. The background of that experience is what helps to “understand what each other [office] does and why they do it” before working with programs. Dr. Meixner also attributes the success of the collaboration to “recognizing that in most cases academic units exist in a different temporal space than our more administrative units” which creates a unique dynamic and that the process of LID cannot be rushed. Dr. Meixner expressed that learning improvement is a simple model, noting Dr. Keston Fulcher’s article “Weigh Pig, Feed Pig, Weigh Pig”. Dr Meixner continued the metaphor by saying that LID helps to “feed the farmer” [the faculty] who would, in turn, “feed the pig” [students].

Towards the end of the interview, thoughts for the future were discussed. As Dr. Hurney is taking a new opportunity next year at Colby College in Maine, Foelber asked how she would apply the knowledge learned through LID to her next position. Hurney pointed out that Colby College is different from JMU as it is much smaller, thus she is the one person for the Center for Teaching and Learning. She is planning to take her own advice about benchmarking programs to Colby as it is essential to understanding and planning for departmental needs. Dr. Hurney would like to see groups similar to CARS and CFI form at Colby College but realizes the importance of identifying Colby’s needs first. These needs will “allow [her] to have a set goal for working with faculty and students”; “LID is a guiding light to future work”.

Dr. MeixnerFor Dr. Meixner, Foelber asked what she looked forward to in continuing work with the LID program. Dr. Meixner commented that the program was in great shape to continue. She also mentioned the strategic plans, which are in place for building the program and increasing campus visibility. Dr. Meixner hopes that visibility will keep the LID program on departments’ radars across campus. She stated “it is important to share both the quantitative and qualitative stories of success; we can say CARS and CFI are successful if in several years we have cadres of [students affected by LID] who can talk about what they learned from this…process, and faculty can look back at their experience and say that was the most amazing professional development experience I ever had and it really helped me feel more invested in the college, community, and university, and in my discipline.” Dr. Meixner also commented that she is looking forward to fine-tuning the roles that CARS, CFI, and the academic units play in the LID program in order to bring some finesse to scaling the work that goes into program design. She is also aiming to continue connecting with other colleges and universities to test the LID model at other institutions in the hope of being able to expand the program nationally in the future.