Student assessment is often seen as a bureaucratic, paper-pushing process driven by politics that can be antithetical to student learning. While such opinions may have some grounding, they are largely influenced by misconceptions. The job of Institutional Assessment professionals is to correct these misconceptions and guide stakeholders through a process of discovering the true value of assessment.

One of the common barriers to realizing the value of student assessment is the difficulty in defining it. Linda Suskie a vice president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, defines assessment as the ongoing process of:

  • Establishing clear, 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


Using this definition as a framework, here are four ways in which assessment can help us achieve a common goal — improving student learning.


Establishing outcomes

Student learning outcomes (SLOs) have been the source of some contention in higher education. Opponents often purport that SLOs reduce learning — a very complex and individualized process — to a simple, generalized statement. However, there is a certain set of core skills (general education and discipline-specific) that we expect students to have once they leave our institutions. Outcomes are an articulation of those core skills.

For example, if a student graduates with a degree in nursing, we expect that student to be familiar with medical terminology and equipment. SLOs ground the curriculum and provide measurable goals. We use these goals to ensure our expectations of preparing students to be successful in their field are met.


Ensuring opportunities

Once SLOs are established, the next step is to review the curriculum through a process known as curriculum mapping (CM). This process can take a considerable amount of time, producing some hesitation among faculty, but ultimately is extremely worthwhile.

CM reveals gaps in the curriculum where there is a lack of sufficient learning opportunities (instruction or assignments) for students to develop the skills represented by the SLOs. Sometimes we know what we want students to learn (SLOs), but fail to establish an environment (curriculum) where that desire will be realized (student performance). Assessment helps us to bridge that gap.


Evaluating evidence

We live in a world driven by data. Academia is late to the party and forgot the beer. If we claim to be an institution of higher learning, we should be collecting evidence to ensure that learning is actually taking place. We need to be engaged in the process of measuring student performance against our expectations. It is important to develop a system for capturing data so that it can inform decision making. There are a number of effective assessment management systems that can be used to store, analyze, and present this data.


Employing results

What if students fail to meet our expectations? Run! Hide! The assessment police (accreditors or their minions in Institutional Effectiveness) are coming to expose your department to the Provost and punish the institution!


Assessment is not a punitive process. It’s not an institutional or faculty performance evaluation. Assessment is about creating a culture of improvement.

A failed assessment is a good thing. It’s an opportunity to prove to your students and other stakeholders, that you are serious about your mission of preparing students to impact the world. It should be met with an action plan to improve student learning in that area. Once the intervention has been introduced and given adequate time to take root, a reassessment should occur to determine its effectiveness.

This is assessment — the meaningful process of intellectual inquiry obsessed with the improvement of student learning.


Stephen Stafford is an Assistant Director of Institutional Assessment for Institutional Effectiveness at Liberty University.


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Higher Ed Live

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