Arriving at assessment for improvement: Blaich and Wise’s experience-driven path

By Elizabeth R. H. Sanchez (‘15M)

In January of 2011, the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) published From Gathering to Using Assessment Results: Lessons from the Wabash National Study; a report coauthored by Dr. Charlie Blaich and colleague Kathy Wise. Blaich and Wise’s Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education calls to action the many faculty, staff, and administrators who seek to improve student learning. At James Madison University (JMU), their exceptional and ongoing research resonates throughout assessment practice and improvement initiatives.  

First year assessment and measurement doctoral student, Nick Curtis, recently spoke with Blaich and Wise, the respective directors and associate directors of both the Center of Inquiry at Wabash College and the Higher Education Data Sharing Consortium (HEDS). Though the two often work in tandem, distinct experiences and independent efforts inspired Blaich and Wise to conduct national studies, host workshops, and speak with a diversity of higher education stakeholders on many college campuses.

Curtis, a former school psychologist and recent recipient of Virginia’s School Psychologist of the Year award, caught up with Blaich and Wise during a typical week-and-a-half: they were in between traveling for several days of meetings and hosting Students Engaging Students to Improve Learning: Using Student-Led Focus Groups to Gather and Make Sense of Assessment Evidence, a workshop of 10 universities at Wabash College. Both Blaich and Wise are busy; their ground-breaking work is hectic.

 As a former professor, Blaich’s “insider” background paved the way to higher education research and improvement. While instructing lab sections for introductory psychology courses as a graduate student, and later as a faculty member at Eastern Illinois University and Wabash College, Blaich began to “monkey with things” in his courses, using the classroom as “a place to experiment [and] try things.” His intrinsic interest in classroom experimentation and development allowed him to recognize and document the positive impacts of his creative efforts on student work.

In many ways, Curtis’ past experiences as an adjunct instructor in the psychology department echo Blaich’s accomplishments in and outside the classroom. “After my first year [of being an instructor],” Curtis mentioned after the interview, “I found myself trying new and different strategies to help [students]… It was extremely gratifying being able to see students learn something new because of something that I implemented in the classroom. I think that is one of the big reasons I was so easily convinced of the importance of student learning improvement.”

Blaich, like Curtis, loved teaching. In the midst of “looking at where it’s going well, looking at what’s going not so well, reflecting on it [and] talking about it” with his colleagues, Blaich heard Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. Secretary of Education, speak about accountability. The talk elicited a strong reaction from the professor, as he described to Curtis, “I remember at that moment thinking, ‘jeez…if this done poorly, it’s going to mess things up because institutions [will be so] worried about proving themselves to the outside world…’” that colleges will forget that assessment is “…formative to faculty and staff…first and foremost.” He and Wise now assist universities across the country in making assessment useful for faculty, staff, and students.

Dr. WiseWise, a former social worker and financial analyst, saw the work yet to be done in higher education through the eyes of an “educated citizen” and overall student advocate. Speaking with students at different universities, reflecting on her own experiences of earning an undergraduate and M.B.A degree, researching best teaching and learning practices, and documenting the “fascinating” Wabash National Study data on what “helped students learn, grow, and get the best out of college,” all contributed to Wise’s growing work at the Center of Inquiry. She thoroughly enjoys “trying to improve higher education [and] the experience for students” by talking to all stakeholders at partnering college campuses nationwide; the Center of Inquiry’s goal “from the beginning,” Wise stated.

“…I know people are paying a lot of money; they’re counting on their education [in order to have] a good, successful, happy life,” Wise acknowledges, “…we promise students a lot of things,” but it takes commitment and hard work to fulfill that promise. In fact, as Wise reflected on her interactions with faculty of varying quality and remembered her experience of teaching a summer entrepreneurship course with little training, Wise admits that she did not always understand the current state of higher education affairs.

“One of the challenges [of higher education improvement] is that colleges and universities are fundamentally individualistic,” Blaich explained to Curtis, in the sense that each faculty member is evaluated on his or her own teaching and his or her own research. An illustration he typically uses to describe the profound cracks in the pavement on university campuses is that of graduation. “When a student walks across the stage and gets that degree,” Blaich explains, “how many different people combined collaborated? How many peoples’ work influenced her education? And to what extent do all those people, and it could be dozens of people…,” such as staff who had internship experiences to faculty who taught classes, “…have they ever talked to one another and worked together to get a sense of how their different efforts [are] adding up?”

For Wise, “the individualistic nature of the [higher education] enterprise” was surprising to her. In business, corporate communication, focus on the customer, and teamwork problem-solving is an intuitive mindset. According to both Blaich and Wise, there’s a “magical thinking” process that occurs in higher education that is not embodied elsewhere, an assumption that individual efforts will “add up” to or develop an educated student. We rely on students to make the connections between courses in a program, Blaich shared, “but we don’t really do it all that well ourselves.”

Now, the experienced leaders do everything they can do “to help people who are struggling to help their students in their classrooms,” as Wise stated. “We go to different institutions…for a thousand different reasons,” Blaich mentioned, “we are talking with different groups of people, all day long.” They ask improvised questions: What are your interests in student learning? What are you passionate about? What changes have you made in your programs in the last couple of years? What are your biggest goals for students? What does tomorrow bring?  And they follow up via memorandums and reports.

Dr. BlaichBlaich and Wise’s experiences and insights are captivating—for Curtis, who said after the interview, that the balance of an outside higher education perspective, a compassion for the teacher, and a consideration for the student experience “is evident in [Blaich and Wise’s] work and perhaps, why they are so effective in what they do;” for the Center for Assessment and Research Studies and assessment and measurement doctoral program at JMU which highly regard the works of Blaich and Wise and collaborate with the leaders to improve student learning; and for other institutions who try to tackle big issues with little outside awareness, support, or direction. “…At the end of the day, we have yet to reach our potential, or even close to our potential, for what we can do for students,” Blaich said about the “good people doing good work” in higher education. Certainly, both he and Wise help all the good people: the faculty, staff, and students, navigate and excel in the higher education landscape. 

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