Northern Illinois University

Northern Today

Assessment Expo roundtable participants ponder
critical thinking, communication, creativity, context

March 22, 2010

by Mark McGowan

Faculty and staff from across the university swapped stories and strategies Friday morning at the third annual Assessment Expo.

Scenes from Friday's Assessment Expo

Presenters at four tables led lively discussions on topics of critical thinking, communication, creativity and context – the ingredients for undergraduate achievement identified this year by NIU’s Baccalaureate Review Task Force – and how good assessment practices can bring those concepts into sharper focus.

Among the several ideas shared: Students are proud of helping to enrich NIU programs through their input.

“Assessment helps to understand the teaching and learning relationship and to improve student learning outcomes for our students,” said Carolinda Douglass, director of NIU’s Office of Assessment Services.

“The purpose behind the expo is to highlight outstanding assessment practices that are currently being undertaken by our colleagues here at NIU. Rather than always looking outside for good models of assessment, we have some right here on campus.”

Stephanie Kummerer, an instructor in the Department of English, spoke of the First Year Composition Showcase of Student Writing. Students present research projects that must include posters and a second attention-grabber. Students create videos, games, surveys and more to show what they have learned.

Meanwhile, they prove their accuracy and demonstrate that they can think of audiences beyond their professors – not only their peers but the academic community as well.

The presentations weren’t originally imagined as a tool for assessment, she said, but faculty soon discovered that value: “We’ve been able to assess our program goals from this showcase.”

Christine Herrmann, director of the Campus Child Care Center, is able to determine what knowledge parents gain through the resource materials she and her staff provide.

Herrmann and the teachers have written articles about everything from literacy and phonemic awareness to toilet training and the “terrible twos.” The articles are contained in folders available throughout the building and posted on the center’s Web site; Web analytics quickly highlight the most popular topics.

Eighty-seven percent of respondents to a survey – about a quarter of the center’s clients – indicate they have accessed information from the center. They also provide feedback regarding the information’s helpfulness.

“Instead of just putting everything out there,” she said, “we know how they used it and what they got from it.”

Students who participate in Health Enhancement’s Pause Off! Peer Education Theatre Troupe create and stage plays that address issues of interpersonal violence prevention.

Creation and rehearsal of the plays builds communication skills among the students; watching the performances permits health educators such as Andrea Drott to measure the quality and effectiveness of those communications skills.

The students also keep journals of their experiences that guide their advisers. “They write, ‘This is helpful, but … you should focus more on this or I don’t understand this,’ ” Drott said.

When graduate students in NIU’s Department of History take their comprehensive exams, they no longer sweat over filling stacks of blue books with hand-cramped, illegible penmanship or agonize over a ticking clock that beats them to their conclusions.

Neither faculty nor students were satisfied by the results of those exams, chair Beatrix Hoffman said, which prompted the department to implement take-home tests instead.

Students can begin the day they arrive, Hoffman said, although most spend between six months and a year on the exam. “These are actually harder: It gives them a chance to revise, and they’re not just regurgitating but analyzing,” she said. “And the quality is better. It’s something you can read.”

Faculty in the Department of Political Science are about to learn whether their newly developed rubric will help assess the quality of papers submitted to an annual undergraduate writing competition.

Political science classes mold students into “problem-solvers who think outside the box,” professor Matt Streb said, and the new rubric is expected to measure those critical thinking skills.

A top score for critical thinking will award each “innovative and original thesis that is clearly stated and logically sustained throughout the paper at a very high level.”

For more information on assessment at NIU, call (815) 753-8659, e-mail or visit