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At its most basic, assessment is about deciding what we want students to learn and then finding out how well they learn it. As such, assessment is an integral part of teaching and a basic responsibility for both individuals and program faculties.
Unpacking the Definition
That simple definition can (and probably should) be expanded. A group of UND faculty, including representatives from every college, constructed the following working definition of assessment for UND:
Assessment is a systematic process by which information from multiple sources is gathered and critically examined to better understand what our students are learning in relation to stated learning goals. Effective assessment results in "informed decision-making" – documenting assessment activities with clarity and in a way that demonstrates continuity and consistency, and using the results of assessment to improve student learning.
The advantage of a longer definition is that it provides more clarity about key elements of assessment.
1. The definition emphasizes that assessment is systematic. We all have intuitive impressions as teachers. Assessment is a way of going beyond the intuitive approach that is a first (and also useful) way of thinking about the learning that occurs.
2. Assessment is a process. That means assessment is on-going rather than episodic. It also means that all necessary information doesn't need to be collected in a single year. It is when assessment occurs over multiple years and one set of findings can be compared with another that important conclusions are generated.
3. Assessment information is collected from multiple sources, usually using multiple methods. Assessment doesn't measure something concrete like height and weight. It's about looking at learning, with all the attendant fuzziness. Collecting information over time, using multiple sources, is a way of triangulating findings and increasing confidence in what's learned.
4. Information must be critically examined. It takes collective faculty effort and examination of findings to reach sound decisions about meaning.
5. Ideally, assessment includes working from stated learning goals. That means program faculty should name what they expect students to be able to do as a result of completing a program (and naming as what they can "do" rather than what they'll "know" makes it a lot easier to think about possible kinds of evidence). Of course, sometimes you may find that there are outcomes you didn't think to name but which turn out to be really important for students. So goals or intended learning outcomes may initially shape how you look, but they don't preclude you from looking beyond the stated goals when other interesting and useful information is uncovered during assessment.
6. The whole purpose of assessment is to support informed decision-making. No matter how persuasive the reports or impressive the charts, information that doesn't get used is information that's wasted – and that wastes faculty time.
7. It's absolutely critical to document assessment activities. Assessment, like research, is meant to be used. And information that doesn't get documented is information that quickly disappears from memory. Annual reports are one place to keep assessment documentation so it's accessible to department faculty, the university, and accreditors.
8. The ultimate aim is to improve student learning. If you're paying systematic attention to learning, regularly collecting information about learning, looking at learning from multiple perspectives, engaging in critical discussion about the information you find and its bearing on intended learning, and using all of that to make wise decisions about next time or next year, it's reasonable to expect that student learning will improve over time. And that's the goal all of us as educators share.
Why do I need to do assessment?
The first and best reason to do assessment is because you care (and your colleagues care) about student learning.
And we do pay attention to learning – and assessment – already. But the unfortunate reality of the human brain is that we're really good at fooling ourselves. The ancient story about the blind men describing an elephant was intended to make that point. Contemporary research in psychology demonstrates the persistence of the problem. Even though we're thoughtful, skeptical people who want to see the evidence in the scholarly part of our work, it's easy to drop that skeptical, evidence-oriented mindset when it comes to teaching.
Looking systematically at specific learning outcomes is a means of countering our natural human tendency to assume we know what's happening with learning because we see it every day. Assessment is about taking learning apart in order to see its individual aspects, but looking at students generally rather than individually. It's about asking questions like "How well do our graduates design strategies for solving unfamiliar problems?" rather than "How did Sandy do on her senior design project?" Answering that first question requires sorting out each student's design performance from all other aspects of the final grade. So for any given student, the grade may have been docked for a late project, or it may have been lowered because of a weak final presentation. But the problem-solving strategy designed may be brilliant. Once the design portion of each student's work is separated out from other factors influencing the grade, and then added up across all students, it becomes possible to answer the question about graduates' ability to design strategies to solve problems.
This contrasts with normal teacher-student interactions. In those interactions, we notice individual students – as, of course, we should. In assessment, we're looking at students across the board because the aim is to gain insight into our teaching, our course planning, or the department's curriculum rather than the development of a single student.
This might be a surprise to faculty who assume that accreditation is the primary motivation behind the move toward more consistent and more thoughtfully-designed assessment. It's true that accreditors, whether for programs or institutions, expect us to demonstrate that we are assessing student learning. However, their interest in assessment is very much like that of any teacher: they care about student learning, as we do. They believe that quality institutions should be paying close attention to how and what students learn. We believe that too. They want to see us making our courses and our programs better when opportunities become available, as do we. They know that some of those possible improvements may become obvious if we pay close attention to what students learn well and what they don't learn so well. We recognize that too.
So yes, accreditation is a reason to pay attention to assessment. But the aim, no matter the original motivation for a particular institution, department, or faculty member, should be to help students learn as much and as well as we possibly can.