To Assess Civic Learning Outcomes, Start with Your Desired Results

Elizabeth A. Bennion, Indiana University South Bend

This essay originally appeared in the Political Science Educator’s Fall 2017 issue.

Civic engagement initiatives take many forms. These include, but are not limited to, service‐learning, community‐based learning, community‐based research, and other forms of experiential education. The list of possibilities for promoting civic knowledge and skills is almost endless. Different disciplines use different terminology and focus on a wide variety of skills including capacity‐building, community service, economic development initiatives, mentoring, needs analysis, patents, public outreach, social entrepreneurship, philanthropy, sponsorships, training and technical assistance, translational research, and workforce development. All of these activities are amenable to meaningful and useful assessment as long as participants define their goals and articulate measurable objectives connected to each learning activity.

This essay is part of the Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List

The key to a successful assessment strategy is to start with the desired outcomes. Instructors, department chairs, deans, program directors, and others involved in civic engagement pedagogy and research should start by identifying the desired results. A good assessment tool provides valuable feedback whether one is designing a single activity, course module, complete course, or academic program. Developers should ask themselves: What do we hope to accomplish? What would “success” look like? These are questions to ask before selecting or designing an assessment plan. The next step is determining acceptable evidence. What evidence is easily available? Easy to collect? Possible to gather? The defined outcome should determine which evidence is collected. Finally, it is time to plan the learning experience and instructional approach. To assure proper alignment between the activity, desired outcome, and assessment methods, plan the experience after identifying the desired outcomes and most relevant (and accessible) evidence. For example, an instructor of a service‐learning course should ask what key knowledge, skills, or attitudes a student will acquire, deepen, and display through completing the activity. By specifying what students should know – and what they should be able to do – after completing the activity, the instructor can design a module, unit, assignment, or activity to develop the desired knowledge and skills. Instructors should consider cognitive, affective, and kinesthetic outcomes. What will students know, believe, or do after the learning experience? Taking a “backward design” approach to course, program, and activity development ensures proper alignment between civic engagement activities, desired outcomes, and assessment methods. As noted earlier, this approach requires that desired outcomes be measurable. It is important to distinguish between broad goals (i.e. ambiguous general statements) and measurable outcomes. Breaking a goal into measurable objectives (or learning outcomes) is required to assess whether the activities undertaken advance the advertised broader goal.

NOTE: Excerpted from Elizabeth A. Bennion, “Moving Forward with Assessment: Important Tips and Resources,” in Teaching Civic Engagement across the Disciplines, ed. Elizabeth M. Matto, Alison Rios Millett McCartney, Elizabeth A. Bennion, and Dick Simpson (Washington, DC: American Political Science Association, 2017).

Political Science Educator: Editor’s Reading List presents select PSE articles from the previous 15 years. APSA Educate is please to announce it will feature all future Political Science Educator‘s issues.


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