Courtney Sanders, a second year assessment and measurement doctoral student at James Madison University, had the chance to interview Dr. Anne Bucalos and Dr. Graham Ellis of Bellarmine University. Dr. Bucalos serves as the Vice Provost for Faculty Development in the Office of Academic Affairs. Prior to her current position she served as the Associate Dean of the School of Education and the Undergraduate Chair in Education. Dr. Ellis is the Vice Provost for Academic Affairs overseeing General Education and Assessment. Prior to his current position he served as the President of Faculty Assembly, Chair of the Department of Chemistry and Physics, and was a member of the Board of Trustees.

Ellis, who has been at the university for 26 years, commented that assessment was new to him in 2007. At the time he was tasked with developing learning outcomes for the chemistry program. In the 10 following years he noted that the faculty and administration have made great strides in assessment practice. Bellarmine has institutionalized assessment practice, appointed people to coordinate assessment methodology, and provided resources to the chairs and deans of academic programs to foster better understanding of the process.

Given Bucalos’ background in education, assessment wasn’t as foreign to her even 10 years ago. Nevertheless, she agreed that Bellarmine’s embrace of assessment has been more recent. Both Ellis and Bucalos stress viewing assessment as more than mere accreditation. Rather, assessment should be implemented to evaluate and improve student learning.

Dr. Bucalos

Ellis and Bucalos attended a SACSCOC conference workshop in 2014 on learning improvement, which was facilitated by Keston Fulcher, Megan Good, Chris Coleman, and Kristen Smith. The workshop was based on their paper titled “A Simple Model for Learning Improvement: Weigh Pig, Feed Pig, Weigh Pig”. Ellis and Bucalos were inspired by the message. At the time, they were exploring ways to emphasize the utility of assessment to Bellarmine leaders (i.e., deans, assistant deans, and program chairs). The pair, along with Vice Provost Jay Gatrell, organized workshops to promote learning improvement, and sent Fulcher et al.’s article to the 55 workshop participants. The participants received “stress pigs” as a fun way to elicit interest from faculty and administrators. One type of “stress pig” featured sunglasses and was given to assessment supporters, while the other “stress pig” had wings for those still on the fence. Bucalos stated these stress-ball pigs were meant to serve “as a visual reminder of assessment’s importance”.

Working towards their learning improvement initiative, Ellis and Bucalos identified faculty successfully implementing assessment within programs. These faculty have shared their practices with others, serving as models of best practice. Ellis and Bucalos have noted that deans are supportive of faculty taking the lead with assessment “allowing for a grassroots movement through the programs and through different schools”. As a result, campus departments now have a better grasp on assessment and how it can support improvement.

Bucalos offered advice to other institutions: “Using a collaborative approach to helping programs understand assessment is an effective way to grow the assessment initiative”. At Bellarmine, faculty felt more comfortable in a collaborative workshop setting which in turn facilitated buy-in to the assessment process. As Bucalos noted, workshop participants felt included and like they were on the “inside”. She noted “once you increase the comfort level, then a lot of other things fall into place.”

Dr. Ellis

Ellis added advice on the use of assessment forms geared towards student learning improvement. Practitioners should simplify assessment forms to highlight results rather than just the analysis of data. This would allow academic programs “to focus [on] what is working and what is not working… and how programs plan to respond.” Additionally, Bucalos emphasized the “importance of moving department meetings into discussion of assessment, and that those meetings have to be collaborative.” Ellis added that these discussions would lead to greater department collaboration. The responsibility of assessment should no longer fall just on the department head but rather be shared throughout the faculty.

Ellis and Bucalos commented on how assessment practice, learning improvement initiatives, and accreditation could be better aligned. Bucalos stated there has been a “student success committee that really has a tremendous number of people involved across campus including vice presidents, academic deans, assistant deans, academic resource services, financial aid, and [other] stakeholders.” The committee meets monthly to determine goals for student learning and success, which are largely driven by assessment data. The point is that universities should consider assessment, improvement, and accreditation simultaneously. This can only be done by having key stakeholders at the table.

Sanders queried Ellis and Bucalos on how assessment will evolve. Ellis and Bucalos agreed that assessment should become second nature and something that everyone at the university is involved in. Ellis contends that assessment should not be “something you add on”. Rather, universities should consistently engage in assessment practice and it should be part of a continuous conversation.  Bucalos stated that we should “internalize the [assessment] process.” She believes it should be integrated fully into work around campus, even changing faculty roles to reflect assessment work. Ellis continued by stating “new faculty should be trained in the discipline and scholarship of assessment”.

Sanders concluded the interview by asking Ellis and Bucalos to comment on how new assessment professionals can help academe. Ellis believes that future assessment practitioners should play a background, supportive role so that faculty can take ownership. This arrangement would allow practitioners to focus on developing expertise among faculty, as opposed to shouldering the responsibility for the quality of assessment. Bucalos stated “assessment professionals should get to know the faculty they are working with and meet with small groups to find out what support they need”. These small groups would serve as a better venue for discussion, as it seems less threatening and provides a more comfortable environment. Ellis and Bucalos offered valuable insights throughout the discussion about assessment practice and strategies to involve faculty and administrators. These are points Sanders will certainly apply as she continues her work as an assessment practitioner. 

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