The Five Colleges of Ohio
Teagle Foundation


As part of the Teagle Foundation “First Steps” initiative, The Five Colleges of Ohio – informally known as or the Ohio5 and comprised of The College of Wooster, Denison University, Kenyon College, Oberlin College and Ohio Wesleyan – conducted two one-day workshops in 2005-06 to formulate ideas for a multi-year collaborative assessment project. Susan Palmer, executive director of the Five Colleges; Iain Crawford, Vice President for Academic Affairs at Wooster; and Lori Bettison-Varga, then associate dean for research and grants at Wooster, led the project. Motivated by trends in higher education, especially the need to educate students for a 21st-century global culture and the need to address federal initiatives to impose minimum standards for student learning goals, the Ohio5 focused the first workshop on investigating various assessment tools, including standardized tests for critical thinking such as the Collegiate Learning Assessment instrument (CLA).  At the end of the day, participants concluded that these tests did not suit our needs and that primary trait analysis (PTA) might prove the most fruitful approach to identify and evaluate the many complex features of a liberal arts education, since PTA is flexible, reliable, and generated out of everyday teaching practices. In other words, PTA would allow us to assess and improve our pedagogy and student learning in various liberal arts contexts.

Consequently, we designed the second workshop as an introduction to the use of PTA in the liberal arts setting. Douglas Eder, from Southern Illinois University--Edwardsville and an expert in PTA, conducted a half-day training session for us, and participants spent the second half of the day constructing PTA rubrics on topics relevant to their disciplines and institutional programs. Unexpectedly, one group elected to compose a rubric to assess creativity in the classroom. When group members returned to the wrap-up session with both a report on their exhilarating discussion and the confession that they could only agree on two primary traits – initiative and exploration, Eder enthusiastically recommended that the Ohio5 pursue development and assessment of creativity campus-wide: the area, he declared, was wide open and begging for serious research.

Building on his endorsement, the Ohio5 leadership constructed a proposal for a three-year project to assess both creative and critical thinking in our institutions. We selected these two cognitive skills for several reasons:

  1. They have long functioned as the core elements of a liberal arts education;
  2. Creative thinking, while not stressed or assessed to the degree of critical thinking, is part of our value-added discourse and our mission;
  3. Both higher education and the U.S. business community have recently called for restructuring college curricula to strengthen these two cognitive skills so that graduates are better prepared to participate in and develop a
    21st-century economy; and
  4. In an ever-increasingly competitive environment, liberal arts institutions need to understand their strengths in order to remain viable.

The intent of the project is to use focused efforts to produce well-designed and validated rubrics that teachers can apply in a variety of educational settings to assess creative and critical thinking and to foster more effective pedagogies, thus demonstrating the value-added nature of a liberal arts education.

In the spring of 2006, the Teagle Foundation awarded the Ohio5 $297,000 to pursue the project. Participating schools for the first two years include The College of Wooster, Denison University, Kenyon College, and Ohio Wesleyan University.