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2017

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Madison Holzman and Courtney Sanders, doctoral students in the assessment and measurement program, spoke with Dr. Catherine Wehlburg. Wehlburg is president of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education (AALHE), the Associate Provost for Institutional Effectiveness at Texas Christian University (TCU), and the Editor-in-Chief for the New Directions in Teaching and Learning publication. In addition, Wehlburg has taught psychology and educational psychology courses, served as department chair, and worked in faculty development. Drawing from these diverse experiences, Wehlburg offered insights relating to assessment, measuring student learning, and engaging faculty in these processes.

In her role as Associate Provost, Wehlburg talks with faculty and staff from across campus. She oversees assessment in academic affairs and the coordination of assessment in student affairs programs. She also assists with regional accreditation and accreditation for specialized programs such as the medical school. 

Dr. WehlburgThroughout her time in academia, Wehlburg has realized there is not a sole definition to student learning that applies to all programs. She currently works with individual programs to develop definitions of what scholarship and learning may look like. These meetings enable faculty and staff from one program to come together and agree on what they are teaching and how their students might demonstrate learning.

Through AALHE, Wehlburg connects with assessment professionals across the nation. AALHE is a relatively young organization (established in 2009). As it evolves, Wehlburg hopes AALHE will provide helpful resources for its members and find a national voice where the organization can serve as an advocate for higher education in conversations of assessment, accountability, and learning improvement.

AALHE provides webinars on various topics such as engaging faculty in assessment, curricular mapping, implementation fidelity, and data analysis techniques. Anyone who is interested (not just members) can register for and participate in the webinars. AALHE also publishes Intersection, a cross between a newsletter and a journal, which includes articles on empirical research, best practices in assessment, and connections between accountability and improvement when conducting assessment. As the organization expands, Wehlburg recognizes the challenge of maintaining a sense of community among its members. To facilitate a smaller group feeling within the larger organization, AALHE hopes to create more communities of practice. These smaller groups would include approximately 20 people from various colleges and universities who can delve into more specialized topics such as data analysis, engaging faculty, and teaching and learning strategies.

When asked about some of the biggest obstacles in higher education assessment, Wehlburg commented that assessment practice and accreditation could be better aligned. She asserted that some issues exist because many institutions have come to see accreditation and accountability standards as a set of boxes to check. Wehlburg serves as an evaluator for the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), the regional accreditor for colleges and universities in the southern states. As an evaluator, she recognizes that for faculty at various institutions, assessment and accreditation have been conflated. She explained this has caused some to question, “If we don’t have to do it for accreditation, why do we have to do it at all?” Wehlburg thinks this question raised by faculty stems from a lack of communication about the expectations for assessment and a lack of resources for conducting assessment. She believes that most programs are probably assessing students, but faculty and assessment practitioners struggle with clearly communicating to legislators, parents, and the community that students are learning. Wehlburg stressed that university faculty and administrators must do a better job of becoming advocates for learning on our campuses and translate assessment results into something that is easy to understand for stakeholders.

Holzman asked Wehlburg how assessment practice could evolve over the next several years. Wehlburg would like to see a shift towards accreditors supporting institutions that are doing well and help those that struggle. She claims that “we value what we measure” and when we put the focus on the wrong thing, we tend to get the wrong action. That is, if we focus solely on accountability and punishing institutions that are not doing well, we can lose sight of positive examples of learning nationwide. Wehlburg asserts that changes to accreditation may be necessary to shift the focus to student learning and highlight institutions as good examples. Perhaps shifts in expectations from the federal government and accreditors can lead to real changes in quality and improvement. Further, Wehlburg explained that we must also value the unique missions of different types of institutions, and this might mean adjusting accountability standards based on the mission of the institution.

Wehlburg added that assessment is changing. Now, assessment practitioners not only need methodological skills, but also knowledge about teaching. It is vital that practitioners maintain a perspective of faculty’s various roles (e.g., teach, advise, mentor, recruit, and participate in assessment). Wehlburg discussed the importance of providing faculty resources, including time and conversations with those who have additional expertise, so they can successfully conduct assessment in their academic programs.

Throughout the conversation, Wehlburg highlighted connecting teaching and learning with assessment and building strong relationships with faculty. She emphasized that working with faculty development offices is critical to connecting with faculty and seeing improvement in learning. In addition, Wehlburg stressed that faculty should be involved in assessment early on and given ownership over the assessment processes that occur in their programs. Holzman and Sanders agreed with Wehlburg and discussed the success of involving faculty and staff in conversations about teaching, learning, and the assessment of their programs at JMU. Sanders also noted that Wehlburg’s diverse experiences contribute to her well-rounded approach to assessment in higher education. Looking towards the future, Holzman and Sanders believe that the obstacles to assessment Wehlburg discussed are possible to overcome and the strategies Wehlburg outlined may be the first steps to seeing greater change at colleges and universities.