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Scott Strickman and Courtney Sanders, both third-year students in the Assessment and Measurement Ph.D. program at James Madison University (JMU), sat down with Dr. Jerry Benson. Dr. Benson is the Provost and Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs at JMU. The conversation focused on the history of student learning outcomes assessment at JMU and contributing factors to building a positive assessment culture in higher education.

Dr. Benson has worked at JMU for over 35 years and assumed his role as chief academic officer in 2010. During his tenure at JMU, Dr. Benson has served in all professorial ranks as faculty in  psychology, dean of the College of Education and Psychology, dean of the College of Integrated Science and Technology, and vice provost for science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and health and human services. 

When asked about his role as Provost, Dr. Benson first discussed the importance of ensuring quality at JMU as stakeholders (such as parents, students, and legislators) question the value of higher education. He mentioned that the Center for Assessment and Research Studies (CARS) at JMU was already well established when he took on the role, and CARS has been integral in helping provide necessary data and assessment expertise to answer questions about quality.

JMU had an early commitment to assessment from faculty and staff, which led to the development of a positive assessment culture. Dr. Benson attributes the positive assessment culture at JMU to three factors: faculty commitment to teaching, collegial relationships between assessment practitioners and faculty, and continuity of administrative leadership. Dr. Benson stated that “JMU has been true to who we are and what we do well… teaching.” He explained that faculty at JMU really want to impact students’ learning, and their commitment to teaching probably made them more open to the assessment process. Benson also thinks the collegial, rather than “expert”, approach of assessment practitioners on campus helped forge important relationships with faculty and staff on campus. Assessment practitioners put the focus on overall student learning objectives, instead of individual courses or faculty, which was key to gaining buy-in from faculty early on. Finally, JMU has only had six presidents throughout its history. Dr. Benson believes that maintaining stable leadership has helped faculty and staff maintain a focus on assessment and demonstrating progress in meeting student learning objectives. Dr. Jerry Benson

Throughout the interview, Dr. Benson highlighted JMU’s PhD program in assessment and measurement, and the exciting partnership between the PhD program and CARS. Graduate students and faculty members from the PhD program work within CARS and have a strong grasp of technical concepts, but are also willing to look beyond the data. Dr. Benson asserted that the combination of technical and practical skills makes assessment at JMU different from many other universities.

When describing the impact of CARS and the assessment and measurement PhD program, Dr. Benson highlighted a few current assessment initiatives at JMU that may have larger implications for higher education. In recent years, CARS and the Center for Faculty Innovation (CFI) partnered, connecting assessment and curriculum development. Because of JMU’s focus on teaching, Benson explained that the partnership between CARS and CFI makes sense. Many faculty also see the relevance of thinking about curriculum development throughout the assessment process. Benson also discussed JMU’s partnership with Gallup, Inc. to administer the Gallup-Purdue Index to alumni. JMU has been able to link data from the survey with existing university data in order to make connections between alumni responses and data from their time as students at JMU. The work of faculty and graduate students in CARS has made additional analyses possible, and JMU will be able to answer questions about post-college outcomes that many institutions are unable to.  This is possible because of the long history of JMU systematically collecting assessment data.

Strickman asked Dr. Benson to provide advice to other provosts who want to move their institutions beyond mere compliance and use assessment to inform decisions about student learning. Dr. Benson noted that he would first ask the provost how assessment is currently viewed on their campus. Specifically, does the institution have buy-in from the administration, faculty, deans, and department heads? And, how can they build on the buy-in that already exists? Dr. Benson described that it would be best for that institution to start with “low-hanging fruit” that can be used as an example to others. For example, the institution could start with a professional program on campus that is linked to a specialized accrediting organization. The program would likely already have student learning objectives and be able to demonstrate the benefits of student learning assessment. In addition, Dr. Benson asserted the provost should also develop a value statement about the benefits of assessment for the curriculum, for academic programs, and for answering questions posed by legislators and stakeholders. This value statement could be shared with upper level administrators to assist them in making the case for the usefulness of assessment at the institution.

Towards the end of the interview, Dr. Benson offered advice for graduate students who plan to become assessment and measurement professionals. He recommended that graduates who work at colleges and universities build personal relationships with faculty and staff, so they are seen as colleagues and not just as the “assessment person” on campus. Dr. Benson also mentioned the importance of always having meaningful stories to tell your provost or supervisor. Having positive stories ready to share, refuels commitment at the institution to assessment.  Dr. Benson commented that one of JMU’s biggest accomplishments in terms of assessment, is the assessment and measurement doctoral program. He emphasized that at JMU, we are not just conducting assessment for ourselves, but we are preparing graduate students to impact higher education as a whole.