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 make evidence-based decisions and plans.

  • Why aren't course grades enough?
  • Course grades are considered imprecise (at best) proxies for learning, because they often include behavior-related information (e.g., attendance, participation, timeliness). Consider: A student who chronically submits assignments late, but whose work exceeds performance standards, may receive a grade which reflects behavior (lateness) rather than mastery of content (exemplary). Another reason which decreases the utility of course grades for program learning outcomes assessment is the need for criterion-referenced results. In order to answer the guiding question (How do the student work samples compare to the expectations described in the PLOs?), the data must yield information about the criteria associated with program learning outcomes. For an in-depth and accessible exploration of how to use effective grading practices to improve student learning and produce outcomes assessment data, see Walvoord & Anderson (2010).  
  • 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 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” (Huba & Freed, 1999, p. 8). Handelsman, Miller, and Pfund (2007) 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” (Secolsky & Denison, 2012, p. xviii). Program review, therefore, is an evaluative process that might include data generated through assessment activities.
  • 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. For program learning outcomes assessment purposes, develop a multi-year plan using the next program review deadline as the end-point. Assessing one-or-two PLOs per academic year will lead to more meaningful results.

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