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Accentuating the Positive in Our Work

Editor's Notes

By Trudy W. BantaApril 7, 2014 | Print

As I write this there is a vigorous debate on the ASSESS listserv (assess@lsv.uky.edu) about the advisability of posting departmental assessment findings on a public website. The first to respond argued that in some environments posting negative findings could provoke punitive measures from administrators, or at the least color unfavorably the impressions of the department in the minds of colleagues in other disciplines. The argument that appears to be winning the day is that positive outcomes can be derived if departmental colleagues report for all to see what they are learning from assessment and how they are responding to its findings.

In this issue Linda McHenry observes that the typical approach to studying student retention is to ask, “What went wrong with the students who didn’t stay at our institution?” Her approach is to ask instead, “What are our successful students doing that helps them continue to study at our university?”

Last fall one of the presenters at the 2013 Assessment Institute in Indianapolis, Janet Ohlemacher from Carroll Community College, wrote to me in advance to ask if she might drop by my office on the Friday before the Institute to talk with me about “using Appreciative Inquiry in assessment.” I said I would be pleased to meet with her and would invite to join us Dan Griffith, manager of training and organizational development in the IUPUI Human Resources unit, who serves as our campus resource on Appreciative Inquiry (AI).

Now, my thinking about outcomes assessment all these years has gone something like this: “Assessment can give us more confidence that our programs and services are working well when our data reveal our strengths. But assessment’s principal value is to identify weaknesses so that we can undertake efforts to correct these.”

Not knowing very much about AI, and certainly not having connected it with assessment, prompted me to contact Dan Griffith for conversation and references! After we talked, Dan was kind enough to introduce me to two books, The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry (Hammond 1996), and Appreciative Inquiry Handbook (Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros 2005). I liked what I read. I found most compelling two of Hammond’s assumptions underlying Appreciative Inquiry: “In every society, organization, or group, something works,” and “If we carry parts of the past forward, they should be what is best about the past” (20–21). And this question from Cooperrider, Whitney, and Stavros gave me an idea: “What are the possibilities, expressed and latent, that provide opportunities for more effective (value congruent) forms of organizing?” (4).

After talking with Janet Ohlemacher and Dan Griffith that day, I decided to try an experiment with AI in the Program Review and Assessment Committee (PRAC), the campus-wide assessment steering group at IUPUI. PRAC includes representatives from each of our 20 academic units, as well as librarians, student affairs professionals, and individuals representing several of our centers, such as the one focused on service learning. Attendance is typically 30–35 members.

At the December 2013 PRAC meeting, the faculty leaders and I prepared for each member a sheet containing three items:

  1. Describe a time when you feel that PRAC worked really well. What were the circumstances during that time?
  2. Describe a time when you were proud to be a member of PRAC. Why were you proud?
  3. What do you value most about being a member of PRAC? Why?

We asked each member to write their own responses first, then share them in a small group. After 40 minutes the PRAC chair asked for reports from groups.

First I noted that focusing on what is working well seemed to put everyone at ease and in a frame of mind to participate actively in discussion. Then the responses told us much about how PRAC’s faculty leaders and I can shape future meetings.

We learned that our members valued most their involvement in achieving reaffirmation of accreditation from the Higher Learning Commission (HLC). This was a bit surprising, because the self study had been submitted nearly 18 months earlier, the visiting team had departed more than a year previously, and PRAC has almost a dozen new members who were not even with us for either of those events. But those of us who were involved then are pretty proud of these words from the visiting team report: “Assessment is one of the University’s strengths. The self study report, assessment reports in the resource room, and on-campus interviews clearly evidenced that assessment data are regularly collected and used to improve curricula.”

Even more surprising during the AI discussion was the fact that so many members valued the work we did between 2008 and 2012 to strengthen teaching, assessment, and learning related to IUPUI’s six Principles of Undergraduate Learning (PULs), which undergird our approach to general education. First we asked that for every course in the undergraduate inventory, one, two, or three of the PULs (e.g., written and oral communication, information literacy, critical thinking) be identified for emphasis. Then we directed departments to construct and post curriculum maps illustrating that student majors would have multiple opportunities in the curriculum to learn PUL-related concepts. Next we asked that each faculty member assess student achievement of the one or two PULs they emphasized most in each course. We made available a place on the electronic grade roster for faculty to record the ratings of effectiveness on those PULs earned by each student in the course. PRAC members were involved in developing the guidelines for this enormous undertaking and then assisting colleagues in their schools to implement the processes. I had anticipated that this PUL-related initiative would be a bad memory because it involved a great deal of change in a short period of time. Instead we learned that PRAC members valued it as an important factor in the positive appraisal outcomes assessment received in the HLC visiting team report.

Members told us that PRAC works best when members engage in small-group discussion and learn from each other about diverse assessment approaches being employed across the campus. Of course this value underlies the positive feeling about the HLC-related activities because focused small-group discussions with tangible outcomes were used at most PRAC meetings during the self study period.

PRAC members felt proud when they heard about the appraisal the HLC visiting team had given IUPUI’s outcomes assessment efforts! They are proud to be identified as an assessment resource person in their unit. PRAC provides $2,500 grants for each of five or six assessment research projects each year, and hearing reports on these projects at PRAC meetings makes members proud. PRAC members are proud of the significant number—at least 20 each year—of presentations at the national Assessment Institute in Indianapolis that are given by PRAC members. Finally, PRAC members are proud to be part of a group that values using data to improve learning.

By far the greatest value of being a PRAC member, our AI participants told us, is having the opportunity to learn from others about successes, failures, and good practice in assessment. Members appreciate the good turnout for meetings and the collegiality they experience there. This makes PRAC a good place for networking, especially following the meetings. When a colleague makes a presentation, they often find themselves being invited to share their experience with faculty and staff in other units. PRAC members feel that they are among experts, and they call on each other for that expertise. In particular they value the grant process, because that puts them in touch with experts who have conducted assessment research. The cross-campus coverage of PRAC membership is prized; some members feel that PRAC meetings provide an important opportunity to stay in touch with what is going on at IUPUI. PRAC members value being a member of a community that seeks improvement of student learning.

The Appreciative Inquiry we conducted at year’s end provided an invaluable springboard for the new PRAC chair and vice chair, who took office in January. We know that some small-group discussion that is focused on specific topics should take place at each meeting. The new HLC guidance for accreditation requires much more campus involvement in the interim between decennial visits than has been the case. Clearly we need to engage PRAC members in this process sooner rather than later.

It may be time to repeat some of the professional development related to teaching and assessing PUL-related knowledge and skills that we offered in the period 2008–2012. We definitely should continue—perhaps even increase—the PRAC grant program and the practice of bringing principal investigators to PRAC meetings to present their methods, findings, and use of findings.

I hope this story about AI contains enough details for you to replicate this experience, if you wish, with your campus-wide assessment committee or another group that is important to you. Focusing on what is going well and on the reasons for that can be a refreshing and revealing experience for all concerned.

References

Cooperrider, D. L., Whitney, D., and Stavros, J. M. 2005. Appreciative Inquiry Handbook: The First in a Series of AI Workbooks for Leaders of Change. Brunswick, OH: Crown Custom.

Hammond, S. A. 1996. The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry. Bend, OR: Thin Book.

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