Regular use of common national survey instruments had provided a big picture view of how well Kalamazoo educated its students. Beginning in 2008, however, with a four-year, $150,000 grant from Teagle, Kalamazoo converted this data gathering into action to improve student learning.
Engaged and supportive leadership was critical to the success of this endeavor. The project leadership team consisted of a small group of administrative and faculty leaders, including the faculty assessment committee and director of institutional research, who had been working together on projects that made use of collecting and reviewing data on student learning. Kalamazoo provided for regular engagement in the scholarship of teaching and learning in a way that transformed institutional culture through: (1) annual Mini Grants to faculty and (2) an annual Symposium on Teaching and Learning.
The Mini Grants included clear guidelines, an explicit reporting-back structure, and support in the form of on-campus assessment workshops and individual consulting from the Project Leadership Team. The Project Leadership Team identified colleagues who were systematically improving learning on campus, enhanced their efforts with mini grants, deemed them Teagle Learning Fellows, publicly highlighted their accomplishments, and encouraged other colleagues to emulate them. The Teagle Learning Fellows convened periodically each academic year to share lessons learned and to trouble-shoot problems in their Mini Grant projects.
For example, one mini grant on transformational learning identified criteria and developed tools for assessing effectiveness of new core seminars designed to help students develop critical thinking, intercultural understanding, and ability to solve unscripted problems. Dr. Cunningham in the Department of Anthropology and Sociology led this project, and was able to operationalize insights gained from the research on transformative learning, implementing them in key experiential components (i.e., the sophomore core seminar, study abroad, service-learning, and the Guilds) of the K-Plan, Kalamazoo’s approach to liberal arts education.
The annual Symposium on Teaching and Learning welcomed a nationally recognized leader in assessment of student learning, and provided a public venue for Fellows to present results to peers and demonstrate how insights from their projects were improving student learning. Several Teaching Learning Fellows also published reports on their projects. Some projects were run like experiments to explore whether a curricular innovation would work well in a course, and many other projects “took the pulse” of the college at several levels and helped assess Kalamazoo’s educational quality. These projects frequently examined recent, or current, efforts at Kalamazoo and produced insights into how it might adjust what it does.
One mini grant on transformational learning identified criteria and developed tools for assessing effectiveness of new core seminars designed to help students develop critical thinking, intercultural understanding, and ability to solve unscripted problems.
Teagle Assessment Scholars, coordinated through the Wabash Center for Inquiry in the Liberal Arts, monitored the degree to which Kalamazoo had been transformed over the grant period, assessing learning at the course level, department level, the program level (e.g., Service-Learning or Study Abroad), and the college level. The Teagle Assessment Scholars helped Kalamazoo establish criteria for recognizing a “vibrant teaching and learning environment” and used those criteria to evaluate Kalamazoo before and after the project. The pre- and post-reviews were intended to help keep them on task, provide transparency to the endeavor, and serve as a model for assessing institutions undergoing similar transformations. At the outset of the grant, the “culture audit” conducted by the Teagle Assessment Scholars revealed that starting productive conversations about data at Kalamazoo could be challenging, perhaps because people were not used to asking questions of data or using evidence to inform decisions. The leadership team, at the suggestion of the Teagle Assessment Scholars, therefore brought in an outside facilitator to run data workshops to minimize roadblocks that occurred during discussions of data. Having credible “outsiders” as “critical friends” help pushed their thinking and build their capacity to serve as assessment scholars to each other.
The process wasn’t easy. The biggest challenge for Kalamazoo, like many institutions, was getting the project launched and securing “buy in.” Developing a core group of “true believers” was key to the project’s success. Kalamazoo enabled faculty and staff to enter into assessment by asking questions that mattered to them (instead of responding to what matters to external constituencies, for example) and then showcased the work of the faculty and staff so that colleagues could see its value and even imagine doing similar work themselves. The transformation of Kalamazoo College’s culture, induced by the Teagle-funded project, prompted the college’s Provost to develop a permanent structure so that the work could be continued after the grant ended. A portion of the annual faculty development program, funded through the Provost Office and administered by the Faculty Teaching and Learning Committee, is now allocated to faculty mini-grants to carry out teaching and learning projects. This sustainable continuation of ideas initiated, tested, and shown to work well through the Teagle Foundation grant will have lasting effects for many years. In addition, the Teagle Symposium on Teaching and Learning became part of the College’s annual Fall Faculty Colloquium that marks the commencement of the academic year.
This sustainable continuation of ideas initiated, tested, and shown to work well through the Teagle Foundation grant will have lasting effects for many years.
By the end of the grant period, Kalamazoo College became, by most measures, an institution where systematic and effective use of assessment improves student learning.