Search This Blog

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Year’s and Assessment

During the New Year's season, which stretches from the day after Christmas until the last resolution is broken, i.e. sometime around the Feast of Epiphany, we take time to look at what we've done during the previous year and make plans for what we will do during the coming year. Our plans for the coming year are called resolutions, and as I mentioned above, our resolutions typically have a short self-life. One year I resolved to give up French fries, which lasted approximately to the next time I smelled French fries.

While this is assessment in a sense, it is assessment that is done badly. Before I go any further, I must remind everyone of the importance of context in the practice of assessment. The type of assessment I am talking about here is assessment of personal behavior as opposed to the institutional assessment as it is practiced by universities, but the general principles are the same. Our New Year's resolutions are goals by another name. One of my goals is typically to lose weight. I choose this for a number of reasons one of which would be pressure from my publics, i.e. my wife. Her reason for this pressure is that she desires that I be happy and healthy. These are desires I should, and I do, have for myself, but because of my love of good food I have internal pressures to overeat.

I choose strategies or objectives in order to aid in accomplishing that goal. The particular one I mentioned was cutting out French fries. One advantage of this goal is that it is easy to measure. Either you are successful in cutting out French Fries or you are not.

But, I did say that I had failed in this particular endeavor. Why?

One thing is that I chose a poor strategy, i.e. cutting out a particular food. There were reasons for this. One of which was that French fries are a particular weakness of mine that pull me into overeating. The problem is that the measure is an all or none instrument. Eating a few French fries is measured as a failure in this system, even if it doesn't result in the intake of a large number of calories in the end. The failure is discouraging and results in a premature abandonment of the goal.

It strikes me that the real problem here occurred with the choice of the goal. The goal itself should have been to live a lifestyle conducive to health. Objectives created in the aid of this could have been eating a healthy diet and exercising an appropriate amount. One can then address the healthy diet through means of portion control and a regular exercise schedule. While there is no set of goals that is so good that a human being such as myself can't find a way to wiggle out of it by Epiphany, this goal and these objectives are at least amenable to long to planning, i.e. I can lay myself out a plan for portion control and regular exercise and can put in some more effective measures of house closely I am meeting my objectives.

At the same time, this is a goal which, while pleasing my publics, also is a good in and of itself to me.

This is something we need to keep in mind when we do institution-level assessment at the university. While the impetus is often pressure from a particular public, those applying the pressure are doing so because they care about education…as do we. Our challenge is to articulate the desires of those applying the pressure into an achievable plan. In attempting to do this, it is easy to set up ourselves to fail, so we need to take care in the early stages.

Happy New Year!