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CLIC’s Year of Assessment

The following post is submitted by guest blogger, Dan Gjelten, CLIC Board Chair and Director of the University of St. Thomas Libraries, and summarizes his presentation at CLIC’s Kick-off Program on October 26.

The CLIC libraries’ year of assessment activities take place in the context of a national discussion on the value of higher education.  Though there is plenty of evidence that a college degree leads to better chances of employment and a higher income, perhaps the most important value of higher education is in the way in which it changes the way graduates think and act for the rest of their lives, thought even that assertion is under scrutiny.  Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift, Limited Learning on College Campuses  (U of Chicago, 2011) concludes that:

“Specifically, while others have applied the metaphor of a river to the journey through college of today’s students, our findings call attention to the fact that many undergraduate students are academically adrift on contemporary campuses.  Educational reform requires improved measurement and understanding of the processes and factors associate with student learning.  In an increasingly globalized competitive economy, the consequences of policy inattention are profound.  Regardless of economic competitiveness, the future of a democratic society depends upon educating a generation of young adults who can think critically, reason deeply, and communicate effectively.  Only with the individual mastery of such competencies can today’s complex and competitive world be successfully understood and navigated by the next generation of college graduates.”

Those words “think critically, reason deeply and communicate effectively” remind me of UST’s mission statement: “The University of St. Thomas educates students to be morally responsible leaders who think critically, act wisely and work skillfully to advance the common good.” 

What we want to talk about today is the way that we can measure how well we in the libraries are supporting these higher goals of our institutions.   Traditionally, we’ve measured our quality and value by counting things – books, computers, chairs, librarians, classes, gate clicks – but moving forward, we think we (as well as the whole university) will be better served by trying to measure the outcomes of our work. That is, how did we change the lives of our students, how are they more effective as graduates, as citizens, as employees and employers, as consumers, because of what the library has done.

I feel strongly that what we do in the libraries is very important, and  I’ve got some data that suggests that what we teach students is considered by them, in retrospect, at least, to be among the most important things that they learn in college.  The University of Washington regularly surveys its graduates and asks them to identify the most important skills out of a list of 17.  I’ve ranked the skills that they identify as “Essential” and “Very important.”  In every survey I’ve looked at the following are at the top of the list:
  1. Defining and solving problems
  2. Locating information needed to make decisions or solve problems
  3. Working/learning independently
  4. Working effectively with modern technology
  5. Speaking effectively
  6. Critically analyzing written information (April, 2009)

I would suggest that most of those skills are ones that the library, in collaboration with teaching faculty, can provide to students.

The ACRL has recently taken two major steps towards developing an agenda for the measurement of library effectiveness.  The publishing of revised standards for academic libraries in 2011 takes very seriously these new kinds of assessment measures.  Under the rubric of “Institutional Effectiveness” ACRL defines outcomes as ‘the ways in which library users are changed as a result of their contact with the library’s resources and programs.’”  Examples include:  “The library develops outcomes that are aligned with institutional, departmental, a d student affairs outcomes;” The library contributes to student recruitment, retention, time to degree, and academic success;” and “The library articulates how it contributes to student learning, collects evidence, documents successes, shares results and makes improvements.”

The Value of Academic Libraries, published in the fall of 2010 and authored by Megan Oakleaf (Syracuse University), describes the current state of assessment in academic libraries and provides a long list of next steps and recommendations for libraries. We are very lucky in CLIC to have Terri Fishel as a member of the Value of Academic Libraries committee.

The Value of Academic Libraries suggests many ways to measure library value including trying to connect library programs to student academic achievement in the ways that Huddersfield University in England and at the U of MN Libraries have done – or connecting library collections and services to faculty research productivity, grant application success, institutional prestige, even graduate employment. 

This assessment and measurement process is not about “proving” value, or “looking valuable” but increasing value and being valuable. It is not about justifying our existence; it is about insuring that we continue to remain central to the academic mission of the institution.

Most of us will probably not be able to devote any single person just to assessment (as in the library which advertised for the position of “Impact Evaluation Specialist”) but will expect all staff to participate in one way or another in our assessment activities, and our activities in CLIC this year are aimed at learning from each other and raising our skills in the area of measuring library effectiveness.

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