Where’s the Student in Our Assessment Obsession

I normally don’t do short student stories or anecdotes in my blog.  My blogging practice, if you haven’t noticed yet, tends to irregular, overly-long theory and big concept stuff.  But today three threads twisted today in a serendipitous manner. I thought I’d share and it’s too long for Twitter, so it’s to the blog Batman for an uncharacteristic post.

A student in my online principles of macro class last spring term ran into what I call real-life in my “professor’s cut of the syllabus*”.  They fell behind early in the class, digging themselves a hole that experience tells me – and I warn my students – is tough to exit successfully. Econ is like BBQ in some ways. It gets a lot tougher if you try to rush through it.

Anyway, this student did ask to see me in late February. There were a lot of issues they’d been dealing with. I won’t detail them here. If you  don’t recognize what I’m talking about, check out Sara Goldrick-Raab’s The Hope Project and find out about. They were deeply anxious. Plans for transfer to State were in jeopardy, not to mention a stellar GPA so far. Anyway, we talked about how to catch up and whether it could still work. I tried to make it clear that, as far as I’m concerned we could still do this, but that what they were still dealing with was “real life and this is only economics”.  Real life, in my opinion, comes first. Health, well-being, safety are all critical.  If we get that, then we do the economics.

Long story as short as I can make it, COVID hit just after that conversation. They didn’t contract the virus, but like most people the stresses of the pandemic made real-life really hard again.  We talked some more. I suggested an incomplete and we stay in touch.

Well, today, I got the email that they thought they were done, please grade the final essay.  Wow. They rocked it. And it’s just in time to make that transfer to State work.

I got this in the  email exchange:

I just wanted to say thank you again for working so closely with me throughout all of this, I understand helping me required a lot of your personal time and effort and the fact that you were willing to give me this opportunity and help me through this semester means the word to me. I am ecstatic to have been able to complete all of this work and additionally feel really good about my understanding of Macroeconomics and am looking forward to applying this understanding down the line 😊

…Thank you so much, I’m so glad to have been able to complete this class, it wouldn’t have been possible if you didn’t take a chance on me and I’m so glad you did!

The second thread is that this has been another tough personal month (except for welcoming the new LCC President) in a  pandemic of bad months. Emails like that are tonic for the blues. This is why we do it.

But the third thread intertwined today was the research and writing I’m trying to do about community colleges, strategies, and teaching/learning. Community colleges, like so much of higher ed, have become so focused on “student success” in the past 3 or so decades. Certainly we cannot object to “success”. But we’ve resorted to production metaphors and the language of business process management. . I’m no stranger to the language. I’m an economist. I understand data and measurement and efficiency.

In making student success our overarching goal, we’ve also become obsessed with “assessment”. Unfortunately the quantitative dominates. It’s easier to collect and analyze and portray our own success at student success. And I today I wonder. Where does this student’s experience appear and how is it portrayed, if at all, in our assessment of course or degree completion rates or our program reviews? Do we keep the real-life student in our assessment of student success?

One thought on “Where’s the Student in Our Assessment Obsession

  1. Thanks for sharing this Jim. I recognise the importance of mentoring and guidance in my own academic journey and it takes sensitivity to do it well. Another often unrecognised skill set.

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