Communication Currents

Communicating about Assessment on Campus

December 1, 2010
Higher Education

Last year, the Association of American Colleges & Universities released a report, “Learning Assessment: Trends in Undergraduate Education.” This significant report summarized member institution trends. Although the findings from this report were largely positive, there was one area that caught my eye as a communication practitioner.

 Areas in Need of More Attention
While colleges have taken the first step to articulate their learning outcomes for all students, they recognize they still have work to do incommunicating the importance of these outcomes to all students.  Of those with outcomes, only 5 percent say that they think almost all their students understand their institution’s intended learning outcomes (italics added).   

The report lists several “ineffective” modes which include:  syllabi, course catalog, website, faculty advisors, orientation program, student advising, viewbook, and first-year seminars.  Based on this list, I want to take a few moments to explore more about what we mean by communication, what the differences are in these channels, and finally, offer some ideas to create conversations that can change institutional cultures to become more learning focused.

What is communication anyway?
The invention of the telephone prompted one of our most well-known models of communication today.  Shannon & Weaver describe communication as a process of sending messages from a sender to a receiver via some channel.  Yet, what this model essentially refers to is a transmission from one person to another.

With the advent of computers, the internet, and cell phones, the American public has continued to focus on the channel as the most significant feature of communication. Yet, channels are not the whole of an interaction. What is largely missing from the sender-receiver model is the meaning and how is it constructed. The meaning is built up over time between the people interacting. 
Are all channels equal?
The channels mentioned in the AAC&U article are not all equivalent. They can be divided into two types: mass mediated and interpersonal. Often mass mediated messages are sent in one direction; one can imagine a university PR person collaborating with recruitment and sending a brochure to prospective students. Interpersonal interaction refers to what some might refer to as two-way conversations whereby meaning is created and shared between participants.  For instance, orientation, first year seminars, student and faculty advising are interactive experiences intended to create shared meaning between participants.  In contrast, course catalogs, viewbooks, or even syllabi are sent in one direction by their creator to an intended group. The viewbook or website is written to introduce or reinforce a message that may or may not have been created via in-person interactions.

When the two types or modes are lumped together, it is easy to miss or overlook the nuances in face-to-face interaction. Specific features that are particular to face-to-face interaction include the spoken word, nonverbal gestures, and the sequence of turns taken, to name a few.  Because everyday interactions are harder to script, they are often more serendipitous. We often do not know where we are going to end when we begin having a conversation.

What I fear is that this focus on channel effectiveness detracts from these important features of interaction. Is channel effectiveness the main issue accounting for the lack of students’ understanding of learning outcomes, or is it the way that people interact within that institution?  When speaking of interaction in this context, one might consider the institution’s organizational culture.   

One assumption that has guided my communication scholarship is that culture is built by and maintained through communication. The discussion about student learning outcomes has often been part of a larger movement to change institutions from a culture of testing to a culture of assessment. If an institution’s culture is based on interaction and you want to create a culture that supports the idea of learning outcomes where should one begin?

One place to start is the sequence of interactions that are common on campuses. These moments occur when a prospective, new or graduating student is likely to interact with staff or faculty. The typical sequence includes a campus visit, new student orientation, classroom interactions, advising meetings, graduation, and finally, alumni contact.   

Increasingly many of these previous “interactions” are moving online.  Some offices on campus may view electronic space as similar to any print publication. For instance, rather than sending a traditional postcard, campuses now can send tweets to alumni and students.  Yet, some campuses have diverged and taken advantage of the interactional opportunities that this new media affords. For instance, some campuses have explored creating on-campus wikis about various topics where seasoned workers can post lessons-learned so that new employees can review and add their own experiences. That is just one example (Facebook may be another) of how one type of media crosses the boundaries between what had formerly been a significant division – mass media and interpersonal communication.

When you blame the mode of communication for your campus’ lack of learning culture, then you take the onus of the responsibility out of participants within your institution. When the AAC&U’s report concludes that, “administrators acknowledge a lack of understanding of these goals among many students,” what they seem to be missing is the notion that the goals of the institution and the students may not be shared.

Communication as conversation entails a shared experience. When campus members spend more time having shared experiences they create a community. That community may, in turn, foster a learning culture.  So, rather than blame communication itself as the culprit, look to the way members interact as the primary site of culture creation and the external, printed and digitalized messages as supplementary. 

About the author (s)

Trudy Milburn

University of Southern California, California State University

Associate Professor