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Assessment Work

Over the past few years in the realm of community colleges, the term "assessment" has been anointed with a capitalized first letter and endowed with an increasingly central role. The assessment "movement" has arisen in an effort to provide a neutral measurement of student learning through the administration of objective, multiple-choice tests as well as a variety of other instruments, many of them developed by individual teachers and departmental committees on the local campuses.

Assessment, when conducted in a spirit of detached inquiry, can help faculty pinpoint those skill areas and competencies in which their students need extra attention and effort. When used constructively, this information can be used to modify curricula in order to zero in on particular problem areas (as opposed to, say, using it as a stick to denigrate and threaten individual faculty or a hot potato of blame to be tossed from administration to faculty to students and back again). Assessment can, in short, be a tool that can facilitate professional growth in faculty and greater effectiveness in classroom and curricular practice.

Hence, the work done at the National Great Books Curriculum Academic Community’s partner institutions develop and administer assessment regimens is natural and appropriate. Indeed, assessment has now become required by bodies that certify community colleges, and in fact the first year of the FIPSE grant was devoted, at the grantor’s request, to studying the effectiveness of Great Books pedagogy on Wright College students, where the program had been in place for half a dozen years.

As it happens, Great Books pedagogy has much to offer by way of remedy to the matrix of problems that are arguably at the core of the assessment movement. However, a central point must be made here. Albert Einstein observed that there are some things that can be measured but that there are also other things just as important that cannot be measured with statistics or instruments.

The Great Books Curricula have come into existence first and foremost as a means to enable students to share with their teachers in the immeasurable sublimity and personal broadening and deepening and transforming effect that follows from growing capable of being able to grasp the best that has been thought and said. Faculty who created Great Books Curricula from scratch for little to no monetary compensation did so primarily out of a love of the wisdom and intellectual sustenance the Great Books have given them and millions of other through the generations and out of a deep and inspired desire to share what they have found and come to consider permanent personal spiritual treasures with students who otherwise would be very much the poorer having been denied this final and perhaps only opportunity.

This primary goal of Great Books Curricula must not be lost in the present atmosphere in which the central emphasis in the assessment movement is on to measure the value of, in this instance, education in the Humanities, not on the many intangible means by which it opens up a greater awareness of the human condition and the meaning of life but on its ability to instill and enhance the quantifiable and the statistically measurable, which means practical skills.

Certainly decades of misrule in American education philosophy and pedagogy must take the greatest share of responsibility for this state of affairs. For assessment today exists as the inevitable response to decades of grade inflation, declining academic standards and expectations, the dilution and trivialization of humanities curricula, and the rippling influence of the No Child Left Behind Act in K-12; together these trends have left employers and the general public without assurance that when a faculty member awards a grade and an institution awards a diploma, this necessarily certifies that students have gained the competence these awards once routinely signified from public schools.

That this is so is readily seen in the sorts of attacks made by various faculty and administrators upon their colleagues’ efforts to institute Great Books Curricula. These attacks include the assertion that teaching such materials is elitist (a denigrating term aimed to discredit efforts to provide all college students with challenging works of self-evident excellence).

While Great Books faculty argue that assigning more complex materials will encourage students to improve their vocabularies, critical thinking skills, cultural literacy, and reading skills, they are typically confronted with counter-arguments that most students will avoid Great Books classes because "they do not want to work that hard," or contrarily that "the smartest students will all take Great Books classes and everyone else will be left with the worst students." The underlying assumption here is that the right way to offer college classes is to calibrate standards down to the level of the least motivated and laziest students, and to ensure that the brightest students are underinstructed and their potential sacrificed to the necessity of enabling the least-motivated students to sit among better role models.

The following are a series of documents concerning several forms of assessment done during the three years of the National Great Books Curriculum project. These assessment efforts come in several forms and look at different areas. One is objective testing, in this case the CAAP test which was administered at Wright College in 2004 and 2006. It looked at how students who had taken at least four Great Books classes - the minimum necessary to earn a Great Books Curriculum certification - did in reading, critical thinking, and grade point average.

Another form of assessment took a self-reporting form. That is, a study was made into how students and faculty felt about the pros and cons of Great Books instruction. A third form of assessment was made by the Wright College Great Books Curriculum faculty on how they might evolve common goals for their pedagogy and work toward common outcomes in their classes.

A fourth form of assessment was conducted concerning how the Great Books Curriculum project itself fared.

These findings are all contained in the three hyperlinked reports below. Visitors to this site are encouraged to read through them both to see what Great Books Curricula have accomplished and to learn how one group of community college faculty has gone about attempting to establish ongoing assessment protocols which may be useful when considering setting up one’s own Great Books Curriculum.

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