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Q&A: Sean McKitrick on assessment

Sean McKitrick, who took on the new position of assistant provost for curriculum, instruction and assessment in June, recently spoke with Inside BU about accountability and learning outcomes.

How do you define assessment?

There are four questions I obsess about when it comes to assessment: Does a program have student learning objectives that are clear and agreed upon by faculty? Are there assessments? Are faculty agents in looking at this information, reflecting upon it and making recommendations? Is there impact from all of this?

The second two questions are the newest and the most important.

Why is the University placing an emphasis on assessment now?

There are national conversations going on about accountability in higher education. Standardized testing often comes up, and campuses are eager to find a way of improving learning outcomes without resorting to the kinds of high-stakes tests that are common at the primary and secondary levels.

It’s not my role to audit anybody or mandate anything, though. Nobody here is interested in a top-down approach. The real issue is empowering faculty, finding ways to get together as a campus and ask, “What are students’ strengths and weaknesses in relation to learning outcomes?”

We have a moral and ethical obligation to know where our students are and do something about it.

Won’t assessment just turn up problems? How can the University benefit from this process?

Balanced, objective information about student performance helps faculty take the next step, beyond hallway conversations about writing ability or anecdotes about math skills. When trends become visible, a department or program can focus on maintaining strengths and fixing trouble spots.

Sometimes, assessment turns up information that seems to be common sense — students overuse Google as a research tool, for example — but without seeing it in the aggregate, it’s hard to identify it as a problem worth addressing.

Ultimately, outside agencies such as the Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools expect us to be using assessment tools. They are useful not only for accreditation reviews but also in grant applications. And, because there’s such a national interest in accreditation right now, there are also publication opportunities here.

How are you helping departments and programs build assessment into their routines?

I’ll be holding two workshops this fall: Effective and Efficient Assessment: A Guide for Department Chairs on Friday, Oct. 27; and Writing and Using Effective Assessment Plans on Friday, Nov. 10. Call Debbie Dunn at 777-2150 to reserve a spot.

The Provost’s Web site also has resources on assessment at

I also encourage people who have questions to contact me at smckitri@ I’m eager for more interaction, just like a professor with 400 students who only sees a few during office hours.

My goal is to make this a meaningful process for departments. I’d rather have an assessment method that’s meaningful but imperfect than one that’s perfect but meaningless.
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Last Updated: 10/14/08