Speaking of Education

Such is the theme for the 2006 APA Education Leadership Conference (ELC) in Washington, D.C., Sept. 16-19, under the sponsorship of the Education Directorate and Board of Educational Affairs. Although we've addressed assessment in the past, it was primarily in the context of accountability and the assessment of program outcomes (ELC 2003). Accountability has been a prominent theme in higher education, as it has been in K-12 education, with increasing demands for such coming from a variety of sources, including parents, the public, accreditation bodies and state and federal governments. Indeed, there are strong advocates for a federally mandated testing system for higher education-an extension of the No Child Left Behind approach to accountability for K-12. Not surprisingly, this proposal has met with resistance given the diversity of institutions and goals in our higher education system.

Leaders in the higher education community also understand the need for public accountability, but offer in contrast to a more simplistic methodology of assessment one that, while accounting for general institutional and program outcomes of achievement-e.g., graduation rates and licensure pass rates for professional programs-also focuses on student learning outcomes in the context of undergraduate and graduate education goals. Moreover, in assessing the complexities of student learning in relation to goals that are more functional in relation to society, faculty also can learn about the effectiveness of their teaching or other venues through which learning occurs.

In fact, psychology has been a leader in higher education for our work on the assessment of student-learning outcomes. For example, the 2004 APA book "Measuring Up: Educational Assessment Challenges and Practices for Psychology" was selected as an Outstanding Academic Title for 2005 by the American Library Association's Choice magazine. Most recently, the Council for Higher Education Accreditation gave its Award for Institutional Progress in Student Learning Outcomes to several institutions where psychologists play prominent roles in the initiatives honored.

Clearly our focus on the use of assessment to enhance teaching and learning is aligned with national initiatives in higher education. ELC participants will review psychology's progress to date and look to the future, examine associated ethical and legal issues, and sample educational technologies that can facilitate this work. They will be informed by two recent reports of APA Board of Educational Affairs task forces: "The Assessment of Competence in Professional Psychology" and "Teaching, Learning and Assessing in a Developmentally Coherent Curriculum," both now available for comment. Also relevant are the "Assessment Cyberguide" and the "Undergraduate Learning Goals and Outcomes," the latter being considered by APA's Council of Representatives in August for approval as guidelines for the undergraduate major in psychology.

A cornerstone of our initiative is the recognition that although outcomes assessment and educational standards can aid in improving quality, in isolation they will fail. To succeed, they must be part of an integrated strategy with a heavy emphasis on the use of formative assessment for both teacher and learner. This approach is very compatible with the continuous quality improvement movement so prominent in industry and health care.

Taken to yet another level, continuous quality improvement is not just a process for faculty and programs, but a competency to be taught itself, wherein students would demonstrate the ability to analyze their own practices and use this information for quality enhancement activity (not only to achieve competence). The Institute of Medicine's Health Professions Education Summit has already identified competence in quality improvement as essential for all health professions in the 21st century (see my column in the March 2003 Monitor). Although graduate medical education had lagged behind others in moving to an outcomes-based model of accreditation, it has since taken a lead in training for quality improvement. Practice-based learning and improvement is one of the six general competencies expected of graduates from accredited medical residency programs. It is also a competency that must be demonstrated for physicians to maintain their board certification.

We need more conversations in psychology as to how we train students to develop skills in practice-based learning-for all areas of application, i.e., learning to identify one's needs for improvement of practice, how to address those needs and how to assess the effectiveness of such actions. This learning requires not only accurate self-assessment, but feedback from others.

I have often noted that we need more systematic training in the acquisition of skills in self-assessment so fundamental to such self-directed study. We already know that biases in self-assessment exist (e.g., gender differences) and that training using external checks is required for accuracy. We will need more attention to such training if we are to create the culture of continuous quality improvement needed by our educational and health-care systems, at both the individual and programmatic levels.

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