Provost hosts conference for assessment

Joan Hawthorne, the Director of Assessment and Regional Accreditation at the University of North Dakota, spoke about making assessment useful. Will Miller | Staff Photographer

At a conference devoted to improving student engagement outside of the classroom, Pitt faculty acted as students for a morning.

After an 8:30 a.m. breakfast, around 100 Pitt faculty members met in the University Club Ballroom Thursday for Pitt’s Provost’s annual Assessment Conference. The provost, Patricia Beeson, delivered a welcome speech but steered the rest of the conference toward the breakout sessions and educational assessment. The conference, which looks at ways of measuring teaching effectiveness, began with Joan Hawthorne, the director of assessment and regional accreditation at University of North Dakota, as the keynote speaker. After a lunch break, the conference continued in smaller, breakaway meetings focused on topics such as engaging students with Outside the Classroom Curriculum and applying research from student affairs to university practices, until 2 p.m.

The conference comes as Pitt prepares for its Periodic Review Report, which is an occasional assessment Pitt publishes regarding how it matches up with the Middle States Commission on Higher Education’s standards.

Hawthorne said faculty need more than one meeting per year to effectively address curriculum and pedagogy.

In the keynote speech, Hawthorne detailed her overhaul of UND’s assessment programs in order to better analyze general education at the research university.

Her efforts ended in a complete shift in the school’s general education program, including rebranding the program as “Essential Studies” and doubling the number of communication courses.

As Hawthorne discussed where some assessment methods fall short, such as using pre-developed programs that sometimes neglect important Pitt-specific aspects, faculty members, who came to the conference voluntarily, took notes on iPads, laptops and in notebooks.

Janice Vance, director of undergraduate education in communication sciences and disorders at Pitt, said Hawthorne’s presentation inspired her to continue putting emphasis on both inside and outside classroom skills.

“[The faculty] realized that just the grade in the class isn’t all we want students to develop,” Vance said.

Juan Manfredi, vice provost for undergraduate studies at Pitt, said Pitt works hard to make sure all of its students follow a curriculum that prepares them for life after college, but the nature of so many different types of programs can make it difficult to find a one-size-fits-all method.

“We have 16 schools with very different academic goals. We have to work to find the common things,” Manfredi said. “We have a system that I think is working, but we cannot stop. We need to keep refining that.”

After Hawthorne spoke, Vance and the other undergraduate faculty migrated upstairs, where Associate Dean of the College of Business Administration Audrey Murrell spoke about a new OCC app called Suitable, which former Pitt students designed. The business school has successfully used the app, which makes completing the OCC program like winning a game, for the past two years.

Murrell and Derek McDonald, the manager of administrative operations for the college of business, presented a nearly two-year analysis of Suitable.

By creating four levels of proficiency within OCC areas, students who use the app can compete with their classmates to try to reach “mastery” status, which requires completing projects or attending events that test the students’ skills.

Murrell said the app — which all first-year business students have been required to sign up for since 2014 — works to better assess students’ skill sets.

“What we were missing was that huge portion of what students were doing outside of the classroom,” Murrell said.

The app is also designed to motivate students to get involved with extracurricular activities, which Murrell said are integral to a successful career.

“The frustration of having to work hard motivates students,” Murrell said.

Through data collection via the app, Murrell determined a significant portion of students who did well in the OCC program also had high grade point averages.

For Vance, the correlation means those activities are imperative to both educational and career success.

The association between activities and a student’s success, Vance said, would impact her department’s efforts to get students more involved in outside-the-classroom activities that teach skills like communication.

The sentiment echoed throughout the day. Before she worked on the assessment programs, Hawthorne said UND students seemed to learn most of their intangible skills, such as critical thinking or problem solving, outside of the classroom.

The Essential Studies program Hawthorne helped create focuses on teaching those skills by reducing and simplifying goals, outlining goals explicitly and emphasizing communication at the University.

“It wasn’t a perfect program, but it was better,” Hawthorne said.

Though she extensively outlined policy changes in general education, Hawthorne said these changes were only possible because of effective assessment methods.

Hawthorne said she hopes new or modified ways of assessing teaching effectiveness lead to positive changes for students’ educations at Pitt. Although there are not any concrete plans for change, the discussions at the conference and the results of the Periodic Review Report could spark new plans.

“Bring in some student voices,” Hawthorne said, offering advice to Pitt as her final words in her speech. “Intensive time to consider results [of assessments] is essential.”

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