Frequently Asked Questions about assessment

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What’s the difference between accreditation and assessment?

Accreditation is an outward-focused activity, during which an institution reports on its financial health; physical and technological infrastructure; staff and faculty capacities; and educational effectiveness. The purpose of accreditation is to provide public accountability to external audiences.

Assessment is an inward-focused process of inquiry about student learning, during which faculty collect and analyze evidence in order to identify practices that are producing exemplary results, focus attention on areas in need of improvements, and to make evidence-based decisions and plans.

Why isn’t grading enough?

Although assessment and grading are related concepts, there are important distinctions between them. While outcomes assessment is concerned with aggregated evidence across a series of courses, a program, or the institution, grades are generated in a single course. In addition to assessment of student learning, grades often include behavior-related information (e.g., attendance, participation, timeliness). Due to this extra “noise,” grades are imprecise indicators of learning. For example, a student who is chronically late, but who is able to accurately demonstrate capacity to apply content knowledge, may receive a grade which reflects her behavior (lateness) rather than mastery of content (exemplary). Another challenge of using course grades as accurate measures of student learning derives from the reality that grading standards vary from person to person. There are too many confounding variables to draw valid conclusions about student learning from grades alone.

Does assessment take a lot of (extra) time?

As programs begin developing systematic approaches to inquiry into student learning, a commitment of time is required. However, because faculty already engage in grading and program review, adapting extant practices for the purposes of program learning outcomes assessment is less time consuming than one might expect. Time invested early will pay dividends later: on-going program learning outcomes assessment produces several years’ worth of evidence and analysis, which programs can consider during program review self-studies. The most time-efficient way to conduct outcomes assessment is to leverage the data regularly generated in courses.

A "model" assessment system

Students complete a designated or signature assignment, which yields direct evidence related to one or more Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs). The instructor assesses the assignment in order to provide feedback to students, assign grades, and record data related to students’ achievement of the CLOs in question. The aggregated data from courses “rolls up” to the program faculty, who analyze the data from multiple courses in light of the appropriate Program Learning Outcomes (PLOs) in order to answer questions about student learning across courses; inform conversations about curricular planning, strategic planning, budgeting, etc.; and include analysis of direct evidence of student learning in Program Review Self-Study Report. As a result of the Program Review process, Senate committees analyze aggregated program data to inform conversations about assessment of Program Learning Outcomes, General Education Core Literacies, and Undergraduate Educational Objectives. The direct evidence of student learning can therefore be incorporated into institutional analyses and reports of educational effectiveness.

What are the benefits of assessment?

Benefits for faculty

An outcomes-oriented approach to instruction provides faculty with valid and meaningful evidence of student learning, which can inform and facilitate conversations about curricular planning, staffing, and space. Engaging in ongoing assessment of student achievement provides data that programs can use to support strategic planning, curricular redesign, and budget requests.

Benefits for students

An outcomes-oriented approach to instruction encourages students to take responsibility for their own learning by foregrounding course and program goals. Students who understand what is expected of them are better equipped to assess their own mastery, seek assistance as needed, and make progress toward successful and timely degree completion.

What’s the difference between assessment and evaluation?

Many people use the terms assessment and evaluation interchangeably, but it’s important to understand how scholars distinguish between the two. Secolsky and Denison[1] argue that assessment and evaluation are two different fields, each with its own methodological approach and underlying purpose. Assessment is “the process of gathering and discussing information from multiple and diverse sources in order to develop a deep understanding of what students know, understand, and can do with their knowledge as a result of their educational experiences.”[2] Handelsman, Miller, and Pfund (2007)[3] argue that assessment is “the fulcrum of scientific teaching” (p. 47). At the heart of assessment is “the collection, analysis and interpretation of information,” while evaluation “deals with determining the worth, value, or effectiveness of something.” [4] Program review, therefore, is an evaluative process that might include data generated through assessment activities.


[2] Huba & Freed, 1999, p. 8
[3] Handelsman, Miller, and Pfund (2007)
[4] Secolsky & Denison, 2012, p. xviii
How often do we need to assess?

In order to be able to make timely and appropriate evidence-based decisions, inquiry about student learning should be on-going. It’s important to remember we don’t view assessment as separate from instruction. Therefore, the answer to the question is all the time. The helpful thing to remember is that faculty are already assessing student learning. In the "model" outcomes assessment process described above, the data generated in courses is aggregated and analyzed to answer questions about student learning at the program-level. Learner-centered outcomes assessment requires us to consider the unintended consequences that could result from not engaging in regular and systematic inquiry into the conditions and practices that promote learning. Imagine that there is an easily-addressed problem that goes undiscovered for six years: that’s almost a generation-and-a-half of students who will continue to face the problem. Regular program assessment will provide faculty and staff with information to make decisions in a more timely and effective manner. If program assessment only occurs every five or seven years, the process becomes more difficult and less useful for continuous improvement efforts. As Suskie[1]  reminds us: 

"Assessments conducted just once every five or ten years take more time in the long run because there is a good chance that no one will remember, find the documentation for, or understand the rationale behind the last assessment. This means far more time is spent planning an designing a new assessment—in essence, reinventing the wheel. Imagine trying to balance your checking account once a year rather than every month or your students cramming for a final rather than studying over an entire term” (p. 50).


[1] Suskie, 2009