Connecting the Dots with Enacted Mental Models

By William Heinrich, Director of Assessment

Summer is over us and campuses welcomed new cohorts of eager students in our (hopefully air-conditioned) classrooms and offices. This annual pattern reminds me to think ahead about who is coming to our campuses. Beloit College’s Mindset List is a great place to begin that exploration of what incoming students carry in their minds. The list points out how our experiences contrast with our new students.  What mindsets are made of, however, are the collective experiences and cultures–temporal and otherwise—of our students. Just like our students, the work we do on campus is tied up in our own mindsets.

As an assessment professional, I regularly encounter varying mindsets among staff and faculty doing educative work. Where do we come from? What kind of training did we experience? What shapes our daily activity on our campuses? What kind of accountability do we have?  When it comes to delivering on student success, the ways in which we are trained, socialized, and incentivized all serve to create and inform our mindset. But this happens differently for each of us. To operate in a somewhat cohesive manner, we need to learn to trust one another and share the stories about how we each effectively engage students in learning and help students graduate and experience career success.

At first, I was interested in literatures around assessment — about how to conduct assessment, influences on practice, and why faculty and staff resist assessment. I wondered how faculty and staff, as individuals, thought about their own influences on, practices of, and moments of resistance to learning outcomes assessment? Operationalized as enacted mental models, I could also observe how people see themselves in a system of learning, assessment, and accreditation. I was curious to see why, at times, we simultaneously embrace and resist assessment.

What emerged was a set of patterns that reflected, differently for each individual, the kinds of formative professional experiences, environmental pressures, and incentive/accountability structures. Next I found out that some people connected the dots between these kinds of influences, others did not.  Again, I asked why?

I found that most faculty and staff are totally capable of connecting their previous experiences and their actions in their environment. Yet for a number of reasons (which you can learn about in the paper), some simply aren’t asked to contribute or are limited in their ability to share good ideas. But some faculty and staff actively reframe and reorient their work using what I call a connected mindset. Regardless of where they operate in the institution, the common threads across mindsets are interesting and I hope you’ll read further. Check out this newly published article: Toward ideal enacted mental models of learning outcomes assessment in higher education in the Journal of Applied Research in Higher Education.

When we grasp the kinds of patterns around us, we can adjust our practices in a number of ways to help individuals create more connections between their assessment practice and learning environments.