While they may not recognize it, most educators and trainers are constantly assessing the impact of their course delivery. This may take place in a conversation with a colleague over coffee after teaching a class or facilitating a workshop. This may take place when they ask students or workshop participants for feedback using informal methods (e.g., a conversation on a break or after class). And it may take place in a journal used to reflect upon course or program delivery. Despite the fact that most educators and trainers are engaged in these activities, they may or not consider such activities part of their assessment work.
Understanding informal self-reflexive acts as forms of assessment, however, is critical. When educators and trainers recognize informal types of assessment as part of the assessment process, they tend to be less resistant to institutional demands for assessment. Likewise, when institutions recognize that educators and trainers are already engaged in assessment, albeit perhaps not in a formal manner, they can leverage existing assessment practices and effectively scale up assessment with less resistance.
Can Assessment and Creativity Co-Exist?
To fully appreciate the challenges of assessment, consider the problems that faced Sandy Baxter when she was hired to scale up assessment efforts at one of the largest art and design schools in the US. Dr. Baxter, who holds a MFA in Visual Arts and Ed.D (with a specialization in educational assessment), was hired in 2012. At the time, the school in question was scrambling to develop a formal assessment program in preparation for an upcoming external accreditation review. What Dr. Baxter discovered when she arrived at the school was nothing short of alarming. Few programs across the school, which had six divisions and over 50 departments, had identified course or departmental learning outcomes. Moreover, while a few programs had informal assessment practices in place, with no guidelines on how to capture the assessment data, even the assessment work in progress was routinely lost. Compounding the lack of organized assessment efforts across the art and design school, Dr. Baxter discovered that many of the instructors at the school were resistant to identifying learning outcomes and assessing whether or not their education and training efforts were having any impact. As one instructor of ceramics explained, “I know what good work looks like, and that’s just not something that can be reduced to a set of learning outcomes or explained in an annual report.”
While many professionals would find the situation encountered by Dr. Baxter more than a bit discouraging, as someone with a background in the fine arts, she was fully prepared to face some resistance and already knew her work was cut out for her when she accepted the position. Creative workers—who include artists and artist educator, as well as a growing cohort of workers engaged in media, technology and culture work across professions—frequently have a negative reaction to assessment efforts. After all, being asked to account for the impact of one’s work on an ongoing basis can be perceived as paternalistic or instrumental. Creative workers, who typically value agency and the ability to explore new ideas through trial and error, naturally consider top-down assessment efforts antithetical to the creative process driving their work. The misperception, however, is that they are not always already engaged in assessment, and this is precisely what Dr. Baxter recognized and deployed to scale up the school’s assessment efforts. Indeed, between 2012 and 2015, she turned a school with little formal assessment into an exemplary model, and she did it by harnessing the existing but not necessarily visible assessment efforts of the school’s instructors, all artist-educators. So what’s her advice?
1. When attempting to scale up assessment of an education or training program, don’t assume that assessment is not already happening in informal ways. Assess the existing assessment culture and identify where assessment is happening, how it is happening, and what language workers use to talk about assessment.
2. Use assessment tools that are context appropriate. For example, avoid bombarding creative workers with purely quantitative approaches. Combine quantitative and qualitative tools to capture a wider range of data.
3. Integrate assessment efforts so they do not increase workers’ workloads. Find ways to capture data that is already being collected but not necessarily captured for assessment purposes.
4. If you’re asking workers to assess education or training efforts, whether it is in a school or college setting or workplace training environment, ensure that they are aware of the benefits of their assessment work. After all, assessment needs to be understood as something that holds the potential to improve educators’ and trainers’ efforts and not simply something that supports institutional compliance.