Lynn Steen has set the stage for this book by describing, in the preface, the pressures that bring many mathematicians to seek help with assessment, as well as some of the resistance to assessment that many of us in mathematics may feel. "Assessment" to many is mere jargon; it's a code word for more administrative red tape. Some fear that it will be used to push us to lower our expectations of our students, to lower our "standards." We hope our book will help allay some of these fears, and will go beyond that to encourage you, the reader, to view assessment as a natural part of the process of creating a positive and exciting learning environment, rather than as a duty inflicted from outside.
Many mathematicians are already taking seriously the challenge of finding better methods of assessment. What we offer here is essentially an album of techniques, from a wide assortment of faculty across the nation. We, as editors of this collection, are amazed at the energy of the individuals and schools represented here, all of whom care deeply about learning. We delight in their successes, insights, inventiveness, and the sheer combined diversity of their efforts, and we appreciate the frankness with which they have been willing to share the down-side of what they've tried. Their schools are in the midst of experiencing change. These are contributors who are courageous in experimenting with assessment and generous in their willingness to share with you ideas which are still in the process of development. Yet this book is not premature: good assessment is a cyclic process, and is never "finished."
Take a look at the table of contents. This is a book for browsing, not to be approached as a novel; nor is it merely an encyclopedia for reference. Skim over the topics until you find one that appeals to you and we guarantee you will find something here that intrigues. Perhaps it will be something, such as capstone courses, that you have wondered about, or an in-class writing assignment that you have tried yourself. Who you are will affect how you approach this book. The chair of a department in a liberal arts college, faced with developing a departmental assessment plan, may turn first to the section on assessing the major, and be curious about the assessment of general education courses or placement programs. The chair of a department at a comprehensive university might view the assessment of a department's role on campus as most important. An individual faculty member, on the other hand, might find immediately useful the section on classroom assesssment. We hope, above all, to draw you into seeing that assessment is conducted in many different ways, and that it pertains to almost everything we do as teachers.
To make the book easy to use, each article follows the same basic format. At the top of each article, there is a brief description, to help you decide whether it is the article you were expecting from its title. The article begins with a "Background and Purpose" section, which gives the context (type of institution, etc.) of the assessment method being described, and some history of the author's use of the technique. "Method" describes the technique in sufficient detail, we hope, for you to begin picturing how you might adapt it to your situation. "Findings" and "Use of Findings" describe the results the author has experienced, and how these can be used to improve student learning. At the end of each article, "Success Factors" cautions the readers on potential pitfalls, or explains what makes the method tick.
Each author writes from his or her personal perspective. What our authors present, then, may not translate instantly from one institution to another. However, our hope is that with the sheer diversity of institutions represented (ranging from 2-year colleges, to research universities) you will find something that attracts your interest or inspires you. Make it a personal book. Because of the wide variety of perspectives and philosophies of our authors, some of the ideas presented here you will take delight in, and others you will dislike. As editors, we found ideas which we wanted to try immediately in our own institutions, as did the MAA Notes Committee as they reviewed the manuscript. However, after reading an article which interests you, ask yourself: "Since the author's students are stronger/ weaker/harder working/ lazier/ more advanced/ less sophisticated than mine: how can I make this work for my class? Exactly what questions should I ask? How will I collect and analyze the data? How will I use the results?" You may even decide to contact the author for help as questions arise; authors' addresses are at the end of the book. Then try the activity on yourself. What is your response? You may also want to try it, if appropriate, on a colleague, to get feedback on how the questions are heard by someone else. Be prepared, however, for very different responses from the students, as they bring their own level of sophistication to the process. And be sure to let students know that the purpose of the activity is to improve what they get out of the program, and that their input is essential to this process. Then, after using the technique once, revise it. Or look for another technique which better focuses on the question you're concerned with.
Keep in mind that assessment must be cyclic. The cycle includes deciding what the goals of the activity are, figuring out what methods will allow you to reach those goals, deciding on a method of assessment which will let you know how well you have met the goals, administering the assessment instrument, compiling the data, and reporting the results. Then you return to the beginning: deciding whether the goals need revision given your new understanding of what is happening, what revision of methods will be needed, etc. Throughout the process, students should be kept informed of your reasons for doing the assessment, and of the findings and how they will be used. Of course, unless it's a completely new activity being undertaken, you will probably start somewhere in mid-cycleyou're already teaching this course, or offering this major, and had some goals in mind when you started, though these may have receded into the mists of the past. However, keeping the assessment cycle in mind will improve progress toward the ultimate goal, improving student learning.
We have tried both to offer as wide a variety of assessment methods as possible, and to show their interrelation, so that it is easy to move from one techinque to another. We've done this in several ways. In this introductory material, there is a chart of which topics occur in which articles, so that if, for example, you're looking for assessment via portfolios, you can look down the chart to see which articles describe their use. In the introduction to each section of the book, we've tried to show how the various articles in the section are related to each other. Finally, at the end of the book is a list of other books you may want to look at, which aren't specific to mathematics but which offer ideas that can be adapted to mathematics programs.
We must warn you what our book cannot achieve for you. Although some individual pieces may give you the flavor of research in several directions, this is not a collection of research articles in assessment in undergraduate mathematics. Nor is this book a collection of recipes ready-made to use. There is no one overarching theoretical view driving these articles, although most do assume that students learn better when active rather than passive. But all authors are concerned with improving student learning.
As the mathematical community as a whole has only recently begun to think seriously about assessment, we recognize that this book is only a beginning. We hope that others will take up ideas offered here, and look into them in greater depth. We offer you not only a compendium of ideas, but a source of individuals with whom you might correspond to learn more or develop collaborations. We hope that in several years, there will be a greater variety of methods, many of which will have gone through several full assessment cycles. Once this has happened, a more definitive volume can be written. But the book we have brought together here could not afford to come any later; at this stage, information and inspiration are needed above all.
Bonnie Gold, Monmouth University
Sandra Z. Keith, St. Cloud State University
William A. Marion, Valparaiso University