Assessment Basics

  • What is assessment?

    Assessment is the ongoing process of:

    • establishing clear and measurable expected outcomes of student learning
    • ensuring that students have sufficient opportunities to achieve those outcomes
    • systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well student learning matches our expectations
    • using the resulting information to understand and improve student learning 
      (L. Suskie's 2007 summary of several assessment definitions)
  • Why conduct assessment?

    There are several fundamental reasons for institutions of higher education to conduct an assessment of its general education curriculum, program-specific student learning outcomes, and its overall effectiveness.

    • Broadly speaking, one reason centers on showing ourselves and others that we are achieving our mission, vision, and strategic goals.
    • The primary reason, however, is to use the assessment process to improve the work that we do with students and for our region, commonwealth, nation, and global community.  The academic assessment gives faculty a body of evidence on which to base decisions designed to improve teaching and learning. This body of evidence documents how well students are performing relative to faculty-defined learning outcomes.
    • Finally, a related - and often overlooked - the purpose of academic assessment is to promote a shared understanding of purpose among faculty, and between faculty and students, by clearly articulating objectives and expectations. Many faculty find that the most valuable part of the assessment is in the initial formulation of learning outcomes, a formulation that, if properly conducted, necessitates searching examination by colleagues of their common enterprise as teachers and scholars in a particular discipline.
  • What is a general framework for assessment?
    • Create a Statement of Intended Outcomes: List objectives for student learning that are clearly stated and for which evidence of accomplishment can be gathered. These should be stated in terms of what we want students to be able to do, to know, or to think, not what we, as teachers, do. It may be possible to rephrase existing program goals in terms of intended learning outcomes.
    • Review Current Practices: List goals and outcomes that are already stated for the program. Are these stated in terms of what students know, think, or do? List any evidence that is gathered on a regular basis (graduate admissions, exit interviews, comprehensive exams, etc). Is this evidence of effectiveness used to improve the program?
    • Create an Assessment Plan: Decide where and how to gather evidence of the effectiveness of the program and teaching methods. Normally, no more than 3 or 4 intended outcomes would be assessed in a given year. If a program is being assessed (such as a major), it is possible to collect evidence from a sample rather than from all students in the program. Also decide criteria for successful accomplishment of the intended outcomes ("75% of students will demonstrate mastery of X at the highest level").
    • Implement the Assessment Plan: Systematically collect evidence of the extent to which objectives are being achieved.
    • Use the results: Use evidence to improve programs by addressing intended outcomes that are not being fully achieved. It is also possible to decide that some intended outcomes may be unrealistic or inappropriate.
    • Refine the Assessment Plan: Review the usefulness of the assessment program and make relevant modifications. Is the assessment plan providing useful information?
  • What is an assessment plan?

    A document that outlines what empirical data will be collected, by whom, for the assessment each of the learning outcomes (typically in a multi-year cycle); the process for reviewing the data, policies and procedures to guide discussion and feedback of the results; and the process for modifying the course, program or curriculum to improve student learning.

  • What is a student learning outcome (SLO)?

    A student learning outcome states a particular kind of knowledge or a particular skill, attitude, or value that students are expected to possess by the time they complete a course, a program, or some other area of the curriculum, such as general education. Although student learning is presumed to be partly a function of a program's effectiveness, learning outcomes are statements about students' knowledge and skills, not about curriculum or faculty. Thus, "Students will demonstrate the depth and breadth of our program through their post-graduate experiences including educational achievements, career paths, and other life experiences" is not a learning outcome, because it states that students will demonstrate the program's "depth and breadth" rather than specific knowledge and skills. To keep the focus on students, learning outcomes typically begin with a phrase such as "Students will demonstrate knowledge of..." or "Students will demonstrate the ability to..."

  • What is a curriculum map?

    A document that demonstrates how curriculum and learning objectives are aligned or matched to ensure that students are provided appropriate learning opportunities in order to introduce, reinforce assess and master student learning outcomes. 

  • What is a course-embedded assessment?

    The course-embedded assessment uses instructors' ordinary assignments as the basis for assessing student learning. This approach obviates the creation of special activities or tests administered solely for the purpose of assessment. In course-embedded assessment, instructors may assess the work of their own students and forward the results to the assessment coordinator, who aggregates the results of all participating instructors. As an alternative, each instructor may pull a sample of embedded coursework so that the aggregated samples may be scored by teams of readers. When doing a course-embedded assessment, it is particularly important to find ways to establish reliability.

  • What is the difference between qualitative and quantitative data?

    Qualitative Data: ways of collecting information that is concerned with understanding or conveying meanings or contexts, rather than making statistical inferences.

    Common forms: participant observations focus groups, in-depth interviews, etc.

    Quantitative Data: information that is collected or represented numerically; typically focuses on counting occurrences or measuring characteristics or behavior rather than meanings; easy to analyze statistically.

    Common forms: surveys, experiments, questionnaires, etc.

  • What is the difference between formative and summative assessment?

    Formative Assessment

    The goal of formative assessment is to monitor student learning to provide ongoing feedback that can be used by instructors to improve their teaching and by students to improve their learning. More specifically, formative assessments:

    • help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work
    • help faculty recognize where students are struggling and address problems immediately

    Examples of formative assessments include asking students to:

    • draw a concept map in class to represent their understanding of a topic
    • submit one or two sentences identifying the main point of a lecture
    • turn in a research proposal for early feedback

    Summative Assessment

    The goal of summative assessment is to evaluate student learning at the end of an instructional unit by comparing it against some course or programmatic rigor as defined by a standard or benchmark.

    Summative assessments are often high stakes, which means that they have a point value that often leads to a grade. Information from summative assessments can be used formatively when students or faculty use it to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses. Examples of summative assessments include:

    • a midterm exam
    • a final project
    • a paper
    • a senior recital
  • What is the difference between direct and indirect assessment?

    Direct Assessment:

    Assessments that involve examination of student work or performance, such as embedded test questions, written papers, oral presentations, student projects, competence interviews, performances, or portfolios. Assessment results will be even more convincing if different assessment strategies triangulate to support the same conclusion.

    Indirect Assessment:

    Assessments that supplement and enrich what faculty learn from direct assessment studies, such as alumni surveys, employer surveys, satisfaction surveys, and interviews. This is sometimes referred to as indirect evidence because it is based on opinions or perceptions.