Blog: Idea Exchange

Telling your story: Tips for faculty who are writing about learning assessment

Claire Major May 18, 2016

In my recent Taskstream Webinar on Learning Assessment Techniques, a participant asked about how faculty might write up findings from their course-level assessment efforts, and with good reason. One of the most critical tasks in the learning-assessment process is sharing the information with others. Few faculty who have undertaken course-level assessment, however, have had extensive practice in writing up results, so the task can at times seem daunting. The underlying goal of the written product, however, is simply intended to tell the story of the learning assessment process, from start to finish. Thinking of the written product as a narrative suggests a few simple tips.

Keep your primary audience in mind

A written work can have multiple potential audiences, and it is easy to get lost in who those might be exactly. In trying to speak to everyone, it is possible to end up not talking to anyone. For that reason, it is important to identify a primary audience and to target the writing to that individual or group, since doing so can make it easier to convey the message. For example, if you are writing for your departmental promotion and tenure committee, it is likely that you will want to focus the story on teaching effectiveness. Alternately, if you are writing for an external assessor, you may want to focus the story on how students met their learning outcomes and how that fits with larger program, department, or college goals.

Write clearly and simply

Good writing is good writing. However, when writing about assessment, finding the balance between using professional language and avoiding educational jargon can be a challenge. The goal is to create a written product that has professional weight without overcomplicating it or making it so dense that it is difficult to understand. Achieving this goal is where following basic principles of good writing is useful. You should, for example, have a strong focus, a tight organization, a clear voice, and accurate grammar and mechanics. You should also strive to make the subject of your sentences clear, to use active verbs, and to avoid educational jargon when possible. Thus good writing about assessment is simple, but not simplistic.

Follow an existing structure

Using a well-understood and well-accepted structure can be beneficial as it helps to meet the target audience’s expectations. You may be in a position in which there is a specific format for you to follow. For example, assessment committees, P and T committees, and others increasingly have a specific format for reporting assessment processes and findings. If there’s a format available, obviously follow it.  On the other hand, you may find yourself starting from scratch, with little specific guidance on how to draft an assessment report. Most writing follows a fairly common narrative structure, however. That is, a written work typically has a beginning, middle, and end.

Provide context

The beginning of an assessment report outlines the context in which you have undertaken the assessment. In this section, you typically include a description, in which you list the course name, goals, and content. You also describe your rationale, or the reason you undertook the assessment. Was it to improve teaching? Solve a teaching problem? Document achievement of specific learning outcomes? Or other? Providing such information can help readers understand your position. Finally, you describe your outcomes as part of providing the context. Here, you state the student-learning outcomes that you measured. These statements should be specific and measurable.  It also can be useful to show how the outcomes align with specific program, department, or college goals.

Describe the assessment process

In describing the assessment process, you should provide detailed information about your methods for investigating whether and how learning outcomes were achieved. You should describe the students (e.g. the number of students assessed, their educational level, any pertinent demographics, or other relevant information). You should describe the instructional methods you used to help students achieve learning outcomes as well as the method of gathering information about whether and how students achieved. In so doing, you should provide specific information about how you measured success (e.g. the learning artifacts or evaluation tool you used). And finally, you should mention the type of data analysis you used (for example, descriptive statistics or qualitative content analysis).

Explain what you learned and what you think it means

In the final section of the report, you describe the assessment results. It is often useful to report on findings outcome-by-outcome. In doing so, you can use data displays such as charts, tables, word clouds, or other visual displays. You should also provide your interpretation of the information, telling your audience what you as the instructor understand about the findings. In this section, you will also explain what you plan to do as a result of your assessment, or the actions that you plan to take as a result of what you have learned. You may also want to include plans for following up on your actions, clearly stating how you will determine whether your actions made a difference.

It’s important to share what you learned from your assessment with others. When we share, whether through publications, teaching dossiers or portfolios, or formal assessment reports, we faculty have the opportunity to learn from each other. I hope these tips will help you as you write about course-level learning outcomes assessment. And if you are looking for additional information on Learning Assessment Techniques or writing up results from course-level assessment, I hope you’ll check out my book with Elizabeth Barkley titled Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty.