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Assessing Diversity Courses: Tips and Tools
Jack Meacham, SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor and Chair, Department of Psychology, State University of New York at Buffalo

Guiding principles for assessing diversity courses are, in general, the same principles that should guide assessment of any course. It is important to consider before the first day of class how one will know if one is reaching the goals for student learning one has set.

Articulating Learning Goals

As in any effective course assessment, before beginning to teach a course on diversity, one should articulate one's goals for student learning. This record serves as a reminder to keep one on track during the semester, and as a point of comparison when new goals emerge as a result of interactions with students.

It is also good practice to list these goals on the course syllabus. This clarification of expectations for student learning helps both students and the teacher stay focused on course-relevant topics throughout the term. Goals for student learning should be limited in scope as well as appropriate for the students' learning, not just the teacher's interests.

Some of the teachers of the American Pluralism course at SUNY at Buffalo (see www.diversityweb.org) have adopted goals for student learning such as to understand ourselves and others in ways other than stereotyped groups or categories; to develop an awareness of the causes and effects of structured inequalities and prejudicial exclusion; and to develop an increased self-awareness of what it means in our culture to be a person of the student's own gender, race, class, ethnicity, and religion as well as an understanding of how these categories affect those who are different from themselves.

Assessing Before the Course Ends

The usual procedure for course assessment is for a questionnaire to be administered to students towards the end of the term or frequently on the last day of class. Waiting until the end of the term to solicit feedback from students, however, has limited utility. It can leave the teacher uninformed about what students are really thinking during the course.

Most classes include both students who frequently participate in class discussions and others who sit silently or participate only infrequently. One might assume that vocal students are representative of the viewpoints of silent students, but this might not be the case especially for many controversial issues that can arise in diversity courses. Those students who are not speaking might be in sharp disagreement with those students who are speaking, yet perhaps concerned that if they speak they will be drawn into an argument; or they might be following the discussion closely and are strongly engaged and perhaps even deeply moved by what is being said. The issues in a diversity course can touch students very personally, for dimensions such as race, gender, ethnicity, and religion are typically at the core of the identities that traditional college-age students are constructing.

To be more sensitive to these dynamics, it is good practice to assess informally how the course is going at least once and perhaps several times as the course is progressing. Then, if necessary, one can make appropriate changes in readings, classroom activities, or course requirements right away. A simple assessment procedure is to bring the class to a close a few minutes early and ask the students to write anonymously what might be changed to make the class better and to leave these suggestions as they exit the classroom. Not only can good suggestions emerge, but the procedure itself reinforces an important lesson for many diversity courses: that each person's opinion will be listened to and respected. Such informal yet frequent assessment and minor course corrections can make the difference between a disastrous course and one that is steered back on track.

Much can also be learned about how a diversity course is progressing by asking students to keep journals in which they record their brief reactions, examples, questions, disagreements, or insights in response to each assigned reading, lecture, and class discussion. Often teachers find that they are able to construct discussion topics and questions for future classes from some of the journal entries. Another procedure for learning about the progress of a diversity course is to provide students with the opportunity to post messages and read what their peers have to say on an e-mail discussion list (Meacham, 1994).

Creating Appropriate Final Course Assessments for Diversity Classes

The process of teaching a course on diversity should not conclude until the course itself has been assessed against the goals for student learning that were recorded prior to teaching the course. Most standard course-evaluation questionnaires will not be adequate for the particular assessment needs of diversity courses, and so teachers must plan in advance to find or construct questionnaires that are appropriate given the particular goals they hold for student learning.

One easy yet very informative assessment procedure is to ask students to list three aspects that they liked about the course and three things that they disliked. Another easy and informative question is to ask students to list three things that they learned in the course. For example, a student in the American Pluralism course wrote at the end of the term, "There are more ways of looking at things than the one I came to class with." This comment is evidence that the student learning goal of the course--to learn about the experiences and perspectives of others--was met for this student.

Assessing Diversity Learning Goals for Students

Often simple, ad hoc assessment questions that relate directly to the teacher's goals for the course are much more useful than the general questions that appear on standard course evaluation questionnaires. Some statements that I have used to assess diversity learning goals include: "This course helped me to understand myself and others in ways other than stereotyped groups and categories;" "This course has helped me to ask questions, analyze arguments, make connections, and be a better thinker;" "I find myself talking with other students outside of class about the material covered in this course;" or "I have been able to see connections between the material in this course and real-life situations I might face on the job, in my family, and as a citizen."

Assessing Classroom Atmosphere and Process

In a course on diversity, classroom atmosphere and the interactions of the students with each other and with the teacher are critical to the success of the course. Thus it is important in assessing the course to ask questions regarding classroom atmosphere and process. Did students feel they could bring up issues in the classroom? Did students feel there was an atmosphere of respect and trust? Did the teacher allow students to express their point of view? Did the teacher respect students' opinions?

Typically teachers receive summary data from questions such as these only after the conclusion of the course. However, a better diagnostic procedure for teachers who are new to teaching about diversity is to make assessment of the course a project for the class itself. The course goals can be shared with the students, who can then decide how to assess the course and what questions to ask. After some data have been gathered and summarized, the students can discuss the extent to which various goals were met and why, what readings or class activities were critical towards meeting those goals, and how the course might be improved for the next group of students. There is much that teachers can learn from listening to students' views about what they learned and their suggestions on how the course can be strengthened.

Classroom Assessment Tools

Although the literature about assessing diversity courses is just emerging, many practices of student-centered assessment can easily be adapted. Two resources with many useful examples of assessment questions are books by Angelo and Cross (1993) and by Musil (1992). DiversityWeb also includes many campus-based examples of assessment tools that can be adapted. See the "Research, Evaluation and Impact" section of DiversityWeb's Recommended Resources (www.diversityweb.org). The important thing to remember, however, is that every teacher has resources for gathering immediate feedback about what students are learning in diversity courses. That information is essential for improving what is offered to students and for increasing our confidence that the learning goals we have articulated are being met by the course. The more we teachers invent and share teacher- and student-friendly methods of gathering information about student learning, the more we can empower students to be engaged and responsible in shaping the multicultural worlds they will and already do inhabit.

This article is excerpted from a longer article that can be found on DiversityWeb at: http://www.diversityweb.org/Leadersguide/CT/Principles_practices/Assdivcour.html

Sources: Angelo, T. A., & Cross, K. P. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd ed.). (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1993); Meacham, J. A. "Discussions by E-mail: Experiences From a Large Class on Multiculturalism," Liberal Education 80 (4) (1994): 36-39. Musil, C. M, ed. Students At the Center: Feminist Assessment. (Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges, 1992).

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One might assume that vocal students are representative of the viewpoints of silent students, but this might not be the case especially for many controversial issues that can arise in diversity courses. Those students who are not speaking might be in sharp disagreement with those students who are speaking.