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Growth in Disciplinary Resources for Assessment in the Liberal Arts

Growth in Disciplinary Resources

By Theresa Ford December 3 2010
Although a bit late to the stage, discipline-specific resources for assessment of student learning have reached the tipping point in many liberal arts disciplines. General resources for assessment have grown immensely in the last two decades, as has their accessibility. We can choose among publications, traditional online or Web 2.0 resources, conferences and workshops—many in real or virtual formats— and a growing number of scholars, speakers, and consultants. Opportunities are plentiful to learn about theoretical frameworks, methods, best practices, and the policies, pressures, people, and organizations influencing assessment in higher education. Until recently these resources were fairly generic, or they focused on disciplines that tended to have disciplinary accrediting bodies requiring them to state learning outcomes and to assess them.

Liberal arts faculty do not, in general, have disciplinary associations that require or encourage members to articulate and assess student learning outcomes. However, faculty in all disciplines in accredited colleges and universities have regional institutional accrediting organizations that increasingly require evidence of assessment of student learning outcomes in all disciplines, programs, and schools—including the liberal arts. Not surprisingly, assessment of student learning outcomes in the liberal arts has tended to lag behind other areas of assessment in higher education, and is often the most challenging area to develop on campus, which can be particularly tricky if your campus is singularly a liberal arts college.

Until recently, resources for learning outcomes assessment in the liberal arts appeared sporadically. However, the landscape in this arena is shifting, with a growing number of faculty in the arts and sciences involved in the assessment of student learning. Accompanying the growth in faculty engagement is the proliferation of discipline-specific assessment resources, tools, and services by faculty—for faculty in the liberal arts—and from disciplinary associations and other organizations supporting the liberal arts in higher education. This article presents discipline-specific assessment resources available to faculty in the liberal arts and sciences, especially those provided by disciplinary associations. Disciplinary resources are fundamental to guiding and assisting course-embedded assessment, assessment of the learning goals of majors and minors, and other learning practices within the discipline, such as experiential learning, capstones, and undergraduate research and creative projects. Disciplinary resources also enhance assessment of general education learning goals, such as the essential learning outcomes of a liberal education identified by the American Association of Colleges and Universities (AAC&U, 2007, p. 3). General education is not distinct from education within a discipline, but is integrated in the disciplines. Students learn critical thinking and writing, for example, across the curriculum throughout their collegiate experience. Each discipline governs the specifics of what is regarded as critical thinking and clear and effective writing (Eder, 2004). Since general education outcomes originate within a disciplinary context, discipline-based resources, concepts, models, and frameworks in assessment are elemental to assessing general education outcomes (Barrie, 2004). Whether faculty are assessing an academic program, the general education curriculum, or an interdisciplinary major, discipline-based resources address the assessment needs of faculty in ways that generic-based resources do not, and thereby encourage faculty ownership of, and engagement in, assessment of student learning.

Professional and disciplinary associations are heeding the calls for assistance from their members and increasingly providing members with resources to aid in their approaches to learning outcomes assessment. Assessment resources have long been available in accredited disciplines in higher education. Standards have also been available in art fields and in modern language disciplines. More recently, the quantity, variety, and venues of resources in assessment for most disciplines in the liberal arts have expanded.

Several disciplinary associations have articulated position statements on what constitutes good assessment or have revised previous such statements. Others have suggested learning outcomes, produced guides to assist in the development of assessment plans, hosted assessment sessions at their annual conferences, and created pages on their Web sites containing multiple online assessment resources for their members. Other higher education organizations and foundations are also contributing resources to disciplinary assessment in liberal arts fields. Since 2004, the New England Educational Assessment Network (NEEAN) has hosted a one-day, facultyled spring workshop called “Dialogues in the Disciplines” as a way to offer faculty a discipline-specific assessment development opportunity []. History, writing, literature, and film studies headlined the Dialogues in 2010. The Teagle Foundation in New York has created disciplinary working groups and hosted thoughtful discussions on discipline-specific teaching, learning, and assessment, and has funded research in this area  [].

In 2008, the American Philosophical Association revised a statement originally published in 1995 in Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association on “Outcomes Assessment” (American Philosophical Association, 1995, pp. 94–95). The revision clarifies the concept of learning outcomes assessment, explains and illustrates how it is used, and addresses concerns regarding its implementation (American Philosophical Association, 2008). It also provides a list of assessment plans in philosophy from several colleges and universities.

“Pedagogy Not Politics: Faculty- Driven Assessment Strategies and Tools” was the title of a session at the 2009 College Art Association Annual Conference. Presentations focused on crafting assessment from the ground up, changing studio pedagogy through process assessment, as well as conducting studio portfolio assessment [].

The American Historical Association (AHA) has established standards for student learning in history and related fields [ policy/CriteriaforStandards.htm]. An AHA task force that was established to find ways to integrate an international perspective into the history curriculum identified specific skills and learning outcomes for students in its report, Internationalizing Student Learning Outcomes in History: A Report to the American Council on Education (American Historical Association, n.d.). The March 2009 issue of Perspectives Online contained a Forum on Assessment that provided examples of learning outcomes and the assessment process at three universities as well as advice to history department chairs (American Historical Association, 2009). Robert Griffith, professor of history and chair of the history department at American University, advised that assessment “need not be a bureaucratic imposition . . . ; it is possible to adapt it to or grow it out of individual academic cultures; and . . . it can lead to very positive results” (Griffith, 2009).

Recent book titles in the assessment literature for faculty include Assessment in Political Science (Deardorff, Hamann, and Ishiyama, 2009) and Supporting Assessment in Undergraduate Mathematics (Arthur, 2006). These books focus on assessment of student learning within their respective disciplines. The American Political Science Association (APSA) published the first title in 2009, and the Mathematical Association of America (MAA) published the mathematics title in 2006. In the same year, the Association for Institutional Research (AIR) published Assessment of Student Learning in College Mathematics: Toward Improved Programs and Courses, the second volume of four in its series, Assessment in the Disciplines (Madison, 2006). Classroom, departmental, and program assessment and special topics, such as experiential learning, are covered in the political science guide. The MAA Mathematics guide includes assessment of the major, teacher-preparation programs, quantitative literacy, pre-calculus programs, and mathematics-intensive programs, with sample assessment work from a wide range of colleges and universities. AIR’s mathematics volume describes ten case studies of assessment in mathematics across nine institutions.

The American Chemical Society (ACS), the National Communication Association (NCA), MAA, the American Physical Society (APS), APSA, and the American Psychological Association (APA) have pages on their Web sites devoted to disciplinary resources in assessment. The ACS posts its exams and study guides, and has developed an online benchmarking system to compare an individual college’s test results with those of other colleges and universities []. Criteria for assessment, college students’ competences, guidelines for departmental assessment, assessment techniques and methods, and a conceptual framework for assessment can be found on the Web site of the National Communication Association []. The MAA’s comprehensive assessment pages include guidelines, numerous case studies, FAQs, books, online workshops, conference workshop announcements, links, and a bibliography on assessment []. The APS has references and links to assessment and evaluation sites, projects, and research []. Assessment reports and plans from political science departments from multiple colleges and universities, articles and books on assessment, and links to organizations with resources on assessment are posted on the APSA Web site []. The American Psychological Association’s second edition of its Assessment CyberGuide for Learning Goals and Outcomes was published in 2009 and guidelines for assessment of the undergraduate psychology major appear on its Web site [].

The American Sociological Association (ASA) provides clear advice on assessment and includes models of assessment plans from sociology programs around the country with its 2005 publication, Creating an Effective Assessment Plan for the Sociology Major (American Sociological Association, 2005). In 2009, ASA published a research brief, What’s Happening in Your Department With Assessment, that reports the types of assessment being conducted by sociology faculty and the use of assessment for curricular change (Spalter-Roth and Scelza, 2009). The board of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education endorsed ATHE Outcomes Assessment Guidelines for Theatre Programs in Higher Education in 1990 and links to it on the “Useful Tools” page of its Web site []. The American Council on the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL) has assessment options for measuring speaking and writing proficiencies [].

In 2008 a National History Center Working Group recommended learning outcomes for the history major in a report to the Teagle Foundation (National History Center, 2008). In another Teagle venue, participants in a listening group developed an open-ended list of nonlanguage- student learning goals for students in classical studies (Struck, 2004, pp. 3–4). In a second Teagle listening, classicists from primarily private undergraduate colleges considered the value of a discipline-based initiative to support assessment of teaching and learning. It was generally agreed that any such assessment should be faculty led (Connor, 2005). As a result of these two listenings, the Teagle Foundation began funding a longitudinal study assessing critical thinking and postformal reasoning within two disciplinary frameworks: classics and political science []. The Teagle Foundation also supported a white paper, The Religion Major and Liberal Education, a study by the American Academy of Religion in which one of the major recommendations was to find ways to share best practices in the formulation, implementation, and assessment of learning outcomes for the religious studies major (American Academy of Religion, n.d.).

Following the lead of public universities and community colleges, a growing number of private liberal arts colleges and universities are also posting learning outcomes, goals, and assessment plans on departmental, assessment, and institutional research Web sites. For example, Bucknell University publishes learning outcomes for all academic departments and programs not only in its College of Engineering, but also in its College of Arts and Sciences []. As part of a Comprehensive Plan for Assessing Student Learning and Institutional Effectiveness, these outcomes are included in a hierarchy of student learning and development goals at the institutional, college, and department levels. Occidental College posts assessment plans for each academic program as well as academic support areas on its institutional research and assessment Web site [].

Disciplinary associations, foundations, higher education organizations, and colleges and universities are contributing to the expanding array of resources in assessment for liberal arts disciplines. The Resources by Disciplines page on the College of Wooster assessment Web site provides links to most of the resources described above []. The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment [] and North Carolina State University’s Internet Resources for Higher Education Outcomes Assessment [] also contain assessment resources for liberal arts fields.

This is not intended to be a comprehensive treatment of the available literature. It simply identifies some of the more recent disciplinary resources in assessment in the liberal arts.


American Academy of Religion. (n.d.). The religion major and liberal education. Retrieved from http://www. and_Liberal_Education/default.asp

American Historical Association. (n.d.). Internationalizing student learning outcomes in history: A report to the Council on Education. Retrieved from ACE/Taskforcereport.cfm

American Historical Association. (2009, March). Forum on Assessment. Perspectives on History. Retrieved from http:// 2009/0903/.

The American Philosophical Association. (1995, November) APA statement on outcomes assessment. Proceedings and addresses of the APA. American Philosophical Association, 69(2), 94–95.

The American Philosophical Association. (2008). APA statement on outcomes assessment. Retrieved from http://www. APA_Outcomes_2008.pdf

American Sociological Association. (2005). Creating an effective assessment plan for the sociology major. Retrieved from images/asa/docs/pdf/Task%20Force %20on%20Assessing%20Undergrad uate%20Major.pdf].

Arthur, S. L. (Ed.). (2006). Supporting assessment in undergraduate mathematics. Washington, DC: Mathematical Association of America.

Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U). (2007). College learning for the new global century: A report from the National Leadership Council for Liberal Education & America’s Promise. Washington, DC: Author.

Barrie, S.C. (2004, August) A research-based approach to generic graduate attributes policy.” Higher Education Research & Development, 23(3), 261–275.

Connor, W. R. (2005, April 16). Liberal education outcomes in classical studies. Report on a meeting at The Center for Hellenic Studies, Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://www.teaglefoun aspx

Deardorff, M., Hamann, K., & Ishiyama, J. (Eds.). (2009). Assessment in political science. Washington, DC: American Political Science Association.

Eder, D. J. (2004). General education assessment within the disciplines. The Journal of General Education, 53(2), 135–157.

Griffith, R. (2009, March). Assessment at American University. Perspectives on History. Retrieved from http:// issue/2009/0903/0903for4.cfm

Madison, B. (Ed.). (2006). Assessment of student learning in college mathematics: Toward improved programs and courses. Tallahassee, FL: Association for Institutional Research.

National History Center Working Group. (Stanley N. Katz and James Grossman, co-chairs.) The history major and undergraduate liberal education: Report of the National History Center Working Group to The Teagle Foundation. Retrieved from http://national loads/2008/10/nhc-teagle-reportfinal- 9–29–08.pdf

Spalter-Roth, S., & Scelza, J. (2009, June). What’s happening in your department with assessment? Research Brief. Retrieved from images/research/docs/pdf/ASAdept svybrief3.pdf

Struck, P. (2004, December 3). Listening on classical studies: Report to The Teagle Foundation. Report on a meeting at Rockefeller Plaza, New York, NY. Retrieved from http:// pdf/20050127_struck.pdf

Theresa Ford is director of educational assessment at The College of Wooster in Wooster, Ohio.

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