An Introduction to Assessment

The formal use of assessment in higher education is a growing trend. While some institutions began assessment when required by legislatures or accreditation bodies, others have proactively tried to create an institutional culture of academic assessment.

Regardless of the reasons for starting an assessment program, the expectation that student learning is consistently evaluated is here to stay.

This is the first part of a series intended to introduce the basics of assessment including what assessment is and is not. The series will begin by looking at program level assessment. Future topics will include basic assessment terminology, tangible examples of assessment, discussions on classroom level assessment, and more.

Part 1: What is programmatic assessment?

In their book Assessment Essentials, Banta and Palomba (2014) write “the overriding purpose of outcomes assessment is to understand how educational programs are working and to determine whether they are contributing to student growth and development.”

It’s important to note that program assessment focuses on the sum of an educational program as opposed to any one course or individual instructor. Although it is true that individual courses can be assessed and class assignments are often used to collect program assessment data, learning goals and outcomes of any program are spread out throughout a student’s time in the program, so there should be multiple points in time where expected skills, knowledge, and abilities of students can be measured.

All faculty contribute to the college’s assessment by creating quality assignments that are aligned with program level learning goals and outcomes. A well-maintained curriculum map can be extremely helpful in identifying the different points in the program where each learning goal and outcome can be assessed.

In addition, it is important to recognize the emphasis that Banta and Palomba place on educational programs “[determining] whether they are contributing to student growth and development.”

Academic programs could argue that students who complete a given program are learning. After all, any student who spends two, three, or even four plus years must be learning something. Assessment challenges academic programs to not just assume students are learning material, but to actually provide demonstrated evidence that a change has occurred.

Simply put, the purpose of assessment in education is to “prove” student learning.

Finally, assessment is a continuous process. It is unrealistic to expect that every learning goal and outcome for a program will be evaluated every year. Instead, the development of a clear assessment plan is vital, with the evaluation of every learning goal and outcome typically being spread out over a three to five-year period. This time frame allows for identification of areas for improvement, changes to curricular and co-curricular requirements, creation of new metrics, and collection and analysis of new data.

Additionally, a clearly written plan with a three to five-year assessment cycle helps to ensure that all aspects of a program are systematically evaluated, including areas in the curriculum that are considered to be points of pride by faculty, staff, and students.

What programmatic assessment is not:

While it’s important to understand what program assessment is, it’s also important to look at what program assessment is not.

Programmatic assessment does not:

  • Evaluate individual students. While individual students are assessed, data reported is aggregated to look at the program as a whole.
  • Appraise the teaching skills of individual instructors. The focus of assessment is on student learning and development. Individual teaching evaluations are typically handled in other ways; however, aggregated feedback from SETs are one example of an indirect measure of student learning. (Indirect measures will be discussed in more detail in a future post.)
  • Inherently provide information about the program to external parties. Assessment is, by and large, an internal process meant for continuous improvement of the program by the faculty and staff.
  • Have any meaning unless there is faculty buy in. Faculty do the vast majority of student teaching at the university. Assessment metrics need to be designed in a way that provides useful information to faculty members. This means faculty members work hand in hand with assessment coordinators to design and implement their assessment plan. Ultimately, assessment data loses value if there is not a willingness to make curricular adjustments based on the insights gleaned.

The next part of the assessment series will review basic assessment terminology and examples of ways assessment can be integrated into the classroom.


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