Assessment: FAQ

Frequently Asked Questions

  1. What is assessment?
  2. Why do we assess?
  3. Why can't we use grades?
  4. Why can't we use student survey data?
  5. How will assessment data be used?
  6. What is the difference between assessment and evaluation?
  7. What is the difference between assessment and research?

1. What is assessment?

Assessment is "the systematic and ongoing process of gathering, analyzing, and using information from multiple sources to draw inferences about the characteristics of students, programs or an institution for the purposes of making informed decisions to improve the learning process" (Linn & Miller, 2005). In this respect assessment also includes the formulation of value judgments in terms of using the information gathered to determine the success of the program and to make improvements in student learning. As the definition suggests, the unit of analysis may be at the individual student level, the program level or the institutional level.

2. Why do we assess?

At this point you may be asking: why should faculty do all this work to assess student learning other than to get by with accreditation? Faculty who are successful in their teaching continually strive to become more reflective in their practice to improve. Good teaching requires more than simple transmission of information. It requires conscious self-reflection. Faculty, like the self-regulated learner, must set goals, monitor progress and make adjustments in their program to improve student learning. Both educational and organizational theorists have purported the importance of setting goals and collecting feedback as a means to enhance performance. (Bandura, 1989; Duell, 1996; Flavell & Wellman; Locke & Latham, 2000).

3. Why can't we use grades?

A letter grade is a nominal value that provides an overall summary of a student’s performance. Salient and summative in nature, grades inform instructors about their students’ achievement and play a key role in any academic system. However, they have shortcomings when being used for the purposes of making informed improvements about a program if they are not clearly linked to major learning goals and are not clearly delineated through the use of test blueprints or rubrics (Walvood & Anderson, 1998).

A significant body of literature has focused on the subjective nature of grades, and this research has suggested that instructors use grades to motivate students to learn. The tendency of instructors to use attitude, effort, class discussion, and participation has been well documented (Guskey, 1994) calling into question the validity of such assessment.

Grading standards within departments or programs may also be vague and inconsistent and do not correspond to department learning goals. This occurs quite frequently when different faculty teach different sections of the same course. Because letter grades are nominal in value they alone do not provide sufficient information on student strengths and weaknesses. While a letter grade of a B indicates that a student has learned a great deal about a subject, it does not provide information about which aspects need improvement. For example, a grade of a B on an English paper might reflect adequate content, poor mechanics, and average synthesis, or it might reflect poor content, adequate mechanics, and average synthesis.

4. Why can't we use student survey data?

Surveys capture information about students’ perceptions about their learning experiences and attitudes towards the learning process. They do not provide direct information about what students are able to represent, produce or demonstrate as a result of the program. Surveys should be used to corroborate data gathered through more direct means of assessment. The differences between direct and indirect measures of student learning have taken on new importance as accrediting agencies such as WASC are requiring the use of direct measures to be the primary source of information.

5. How will assessment data be used?

At the end of the 1999 annual meeting of the Higher Learning Commission, Lopez (1999) announced that "The mantra on every campus must be: assessment is about student learning; it is not about faculty evaluation". It should be used to monitor program activities, identify problems that need special assistance, and guide decision-making. Program assessment should not be about individual students, faculty, or staff. It is a process used to provide feedback for continuous, incremental improvement of academic programs. Assessment data should be aggregated across faculty and courses since they are to be used to assess an entire program, and identifying information for students and faculty members should be removed.

6. What is the difference between assessment and evaluation?

Evaluation is "the systematic process of gathering, analyzing, and using information from multiple sources to judge the merit or worth of a program, project or entity" (Rossi, Lipsey, & Freedman, 2004). Just like assessment, the utility of data is in decision making. Evaluation also includes value judgments concerning the desirability of results and is not limited to quantitative descriptions. However, evaluation differs from assessment in its focus of inquiry. Evaluation serves to facilitate a program’s development, implementation, and improvement by examining a variety of outcomes. Assessment serves to evaluate student performance and the overall program impact by measuring students' skill level on a variable of interest that is usually a specified level of academic performance.

7. What is the difference between assessment and research?

Research may be defined as the systematic process of gathering, analyzing, and using information from multiple sources to draw inferences and test hypotheses, in order to discover, establish fact, or revise accepted theories or laws. The largest criticism that faculty often make about assessment is that it is "not research" and will not produce generalizable results. This is correct in that assessment is not post-positivistic, the traditional framework guiding most faculty research. Assessment is a type of action research. Its primary goal is to improve practice, not to generate theoretical knowledge. Experimental control and random assignment are not as important and in many cases are just not possible. Empirical research also differs from assessment in that collaborative reflection is imperative in making modifications based on shared feedback.