Assessing our assessment

by Darby Ratliff

Opinion Editor

The Department of Education, and by extension, the Middle States Review, has, for some professors, become the boogie man under the bed.Assessment is certainly part of any good higher education review process, but the production of “artifacts” to make assessment easier is hurting students, and I’m hesitant to blame our institution for a problem plaguing all of higher education.

Last semester was the toughest I’ve had in four years. I’ve never seen so many sleep-deprived college students (and believe me, I see it in myself every morning in the mirror). We’re being pushed harder, and we’re pushing ourselves harder because that’s how we graduate, even though classes aren’t the sole reason most students choose an institution of higher education. The College is being asked to show that our institutional learning goals are being met, and so department chairs tell their professors to make sure that their courses can demonstrate that their respective learning goals and objectives are being fulfilled. This translates into students having to produce more substantive work more often. I don’t mean to sound lazy. I understand that I need to earn my degree, but I also believe that, in order to fulfill the mission proportion of our institutional learning goals, we need to be able to engage outside of the classroom. Our campus has so many opportunities to take advantage of, academically, extracurricularly, and socially. However, across the campus, we’ve seen a pandemic of programming problems in which students aren’t coming to events because they don’t have time to take away from their studies.

In speaking to one of the candidates for the Dean of Arts and Sciences, I posited that assessment was the primary reason for these issues and that it was harming the “college experience” for students, particularly the Canisius experience. The candidate confirmed that this was a problem plaguing college administrators across the country. I think it’s such a difficult situation to parse out because yes, on one hand, we absolutely need to assess our education to make sure that we’re getting our money’s worth. On the other, it shouldn’t come in the way of learning and a student’s holistic experience. At what point do we trust our faculty members to honestly evaluate their students and vice versa?

The other problem with assessment lies in the fact that we’re always preparing for it, upping the number of assignments for a class that may not be specifically evaluated. We’re ready on a moment’s notice for the boogie man to reach out and grab our ankles when we get out of bed in the morning, dragging us under. While I like to be prepared, are we too on alert? Are we assigning students assignments which have little marginal value than allowing them to simply do reading on their own time? I’ve certainly taken classes that could easily be confused with high school classes, assigning me homework questions to answer from the reading instead of trusting my own abilities to draw conclusions from what I’ve read.

What is there to do? I’m hesitant to say it’s Canisius’ fault. Assessment is mandated, and our professors are stuck listening to what is passed down. The College’s leadership is responding to the Department of Education and the Middle States Committee’s findings. However, was their assessment of us and our outside of the classroom fair? Was it holistic?

I stayed at Canisius because of what there was to do when I was not going to class. I stayed because I joined clubs and went on retreats. Those are not credit-bearing experiences. Those are assessed by the College, but they aren’t necessarily related to “education” as it is traditionally defined. Now, students are dropping from retreats during the second week of classes because they are already swamped with work for classes. Students aren’t going to events on campus that typically draw hundreds of students because they’re hiding in the library. Perhaps the most concerning is the fact that students are turning down free food.

(Absolutely un-Canisian).

Students pay a student activity fee. Students pay a health and wellness fee. Sure, they’re being encouraged to reap the benefits of these services that they pay for, but they aren’t being given the opportunity because we’re so “focused on our studies.” Aren’t we supposed to be focused on being able to step outside and not be students? Are we building relationships that will last after graduation that aren’t just built on the foundation of the same Tim Horton’s coffee running through our veins? Don’t get me wrong, I’ve bonded with many a friend over a late night in the library. However, I want to see students outside of the library and at events. I know professors want their students to have lives too. I’ve yet to meet a professor who doesn’t shudder at the thought of one of her students pulling an all-nighter.

It’s time to assess assessment, nationwide. Let’s find a way to balance students as students and students as people, giving them the college experience that they will best look back upon. I’m scared that Canisius–that any institution–will simply become a diploma factory because students will one day only choose a school based on its academics instead of its feel or opportunities. Jesuit education is supposed to ruin us for life in terms of our sense of humanity. Is assessment just ruining our sleeping habits?

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