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Assessing Student Learning: A Work in Progress

Assessing Student Learning: A Work in Progress

Richard Ekman and Stephen Pelletier, Change Magazine

December 02, 2009

However, shortening the testing time proved to be only half the challenge. In the initial round of consortium testing, only six of the 12 institutions met minimum sample sizes needed for valid test results. So the current group of 33 institutions had intensive discussions of recruitment strategies, which did yield improved response rates. Nonetheless, after three years of concerted efforts and refining approaches, getting students to take the CLA remains a big challenge—especially among seniors, who are far less responsive to appeals to volunteer than first-year students.

The least successful strategy among consortium members has been a campus-wide call for volunteers, even with prizes of gift certificates, raffles for iPods, or cash offered as inducements. In fact, many of the consortium’s member colleges balked at the initial recommendation to pay students $25 an hour to take the CLA, in part due to the added cost and in part because faculty members believed that such an approach ran counter to campus values.

The most successful approach to administering the CLA has been to incorporate testing into the academic program—giving it during new-student orientation or a campus-wide assessment day, or embedding it in first-year seminar and senior capstone courses. Westminster College in Missouri, for example, now gives the test to all first-year students during their first week on campus in the fall, then tests seniors as part of an annual spring assessment day, when regular classes are suspended to allow time for testing. The expectation is simply that seniors will take the CLA that day, and last year 90 percent complied. It is worth noting, though, how reluctant faculties have been to impose a new requirement, coming to the conclusion that it is appropriate to do so only after becoming more familiar with the CLA and the importance of outcomes assessment.

Bethel University’s progression may be typical. In its first year of participation in the consortium (2005–2006), Bethel struggled to find a time during the fall semester when first-year students could take the test. Administrators solicited the participation of some instructors, invited students to participate, and offered $5 gift certificates as incentives. But in the end Bethel suffered from small samples, according to Richard Sherry, the university’s dean for faculty growth and assessment. So in Bethel’s second and third years, the university decided to make the test part of assessment activities during its new-student “welcome week.” Out of pools of students whose ACT/SAT scores were representative of the entire class, some students were assigned at random to take the CLA, while the remaining students were given a critical-thinking assessment that Bethel has used for some years. “That worked extremely well, and we got our sample in roughly two and a half hours,” Sherry reports.

To get seniors’ participation, Bethel follows a strategy that many members of the consortium employ—working directly with faculty members and students in senior capstone courses, in this case ones that have intensive critical thinking and writing components. Faculty members motivate students to take the test, some by offering bonus points or the equivalent as a “carrot” and others by using the CLA as a course requirement. Similarly, at Seton Hill University, which has built the CLA into the curriculum of senior capstone courses, one seminar requires students to take the test as part of studying why personal assessment is critical to lifelong learning.