The widespread dissatisfaction with the American educational system is hardly news anymore; yet the expressions and degree of that dissatisfaction continue to make the headlines of the daily newspapers. Most of the news stories target the public educational system, from elementary grades to high schools, as failing in the mission to educate young people in almost every subject - from math and science to grammar and reading to art and multicultural appreciation. Those of us in higher education shake our heads and confirm the reports, pointing to our own students' lack of preparation for college-level work. But we in higher education are also feeling the sting of critics who point to college graduates as equally ill-prepared to work in America's changing workplace.
To deflect charges and perceptions of inefficiency, ineffectiveness, or outright incompetence, many administrators and educators have embraced the national assessment movement (especially self-assessment) in higher education. Many of these educators and administrators have argued the value of assessment on two grounds: (1) we have to prove we are spending taxpayers' monies wisely or they will reduce our budgets, and (2) if we don't assess ourselves, somebody else (outsiders!) will. These arguments are particularly unfortunate, given the more insightful and respectable uses of assessment. Rather than view assessment as an affront to our pride (which could arguably use a little adjusting) or, worse yet, as a plot to expose our "cushy academic lifestyle," we should see assessment as an opportunity to learn what we are doing right as educators and what we are doing wrong. By answering a structured assessment's questions, we can feel more comfortable in knowing that our students have, indeed, learned what we have taught them and that what we have taught them is what they truly need to know.
Two preassessment issues should be resolved before an effective assessment strategy can be designed: (1) what do we want to learn more about? and (2) how will we use the results of our assessment? First, we must consider what we want to learn from assessment: our students' abilities to communicate, our teachers' abilities to stimulate and promote up-to-date learning, or our courses' and programs' missions in providing thoroughness in the curriculum (see Allen, 1993). Second, we must consider how we will use the information we garner, and again, there are many potential answers; for example, we may evaluate * Spending (in such areas as faculty positions, library acquisitions, laboratory facilities, graduate student stipends and fellowships, and materials) * Teachers * Programs * Students * Resources * Advising and career counseling within the program
These various uses of assessment clarify why so many educators see assessment as threatening (especially when used as a basis for budget/position/resource decisions) and so many others see it as helpful (which explains why the methods of assessment are far more critical than the fact of an impending assessment itself).
The tough part, of course, is to conduct such assessments in a systematic way that will provide answers to anyone who wants to know what we're doing and whether it's working. Fortunately, such systems have been developed and constitute a growing body of work on measuring educational effectiveness. Few references, unfortunately, come from our own field of business communication, which is not to say that we have been unconcerned with evaluation - only that our current works more typically focus on evaluating student learning (grading procedures and philosophies - see, for example, Hoffman & Kocar, 1989; Luse, Nelson, & DuFrene, 1989) rather than true assessment procedures. Certainly, the next few years should see an influx of articles on assessment in business communication.
For the remainder of this discussion, I will look at three of the most common methods in assessment of writing as they allow us to consider our students, our pedagogy, and our responsibilities from a holistic process/product perspective that focuses on curriculum content (the rationale for choosing the topics we teach) to pedagogical methods (how we teach these topics) to how our students will use what we have taught them (the finished product). …