A Message From Academic Affairs
On Positive Deviance
I've been wondering whether our approach to the assessment of student learning is likely to yield the results we would all as faculty like to see. My hope is that we are becoming the type of organization in which we're collectively learning more about how students learn and grow in their college years.
But I worry about our progress toward that goal: too often assessment simply feels like one more burden for faculty working very hard already. The results seem to suggest that this is the case, as relatively few departments are completing annual assessment activities on schedule.
How could we do better to benefit Augustana students?
Over the summer a group of colleagues read a book by the New Yorker writer Atul Gawande's called Better. It's a remarkable collection of essays on the ways in which contemporary medical practice is being steadily improved through what Gawande would call positive deviance.
In one essay that we included in the newsletter last year, on cystic fibrosis care, he demonstrates the ways in which simple measurement of success led to a transformation in practice across the globe:
If you haven't had a chance to read it, I think you'll be fascinated by the improvements in care that Gawande links directly to measurement.
Since first reading this essay some time ago, I've been thinking about how our students' experience might differ if more of our course design began with the question, 'What do I know about how well my students learn this material?'
I would be glad for your thoughts on how the college might support course design that starts with such a question, or on ways we might improve assessment efforts more generally.
Gawande ends his book with a chapter called "Suggestions for Becoming a Positive Deviant." His suggestions are fairly straightforward, and they may offer us a useful model, less complicated than many of the assessment models discussed in higher education these days. Among them:
- Ask an unscripted question
- Count something
- Write something
Through such practices, he suggests, any organization changes for the better.
It may be that the answer to the question of how to make assessment more meaningful in higher education is contained in Thoreau's dictum: 'simplify, simplify'. -- Jeff Abernathy