Assessment in Higher Education: 10 Things to Know

Posted by Joe Bauman, M.S. on Oct 31, 2019 2:10:50 PM

Assessment practices in higher education directly impact many aspects of the institution. This can include student success and continuous improvement, among other areas. Below, we share ten ways your institution can improve your assessment process.

1. The term “Assessment” can have multiple meanings, even within higher education.

A quick Google search can tell you that “assessment” means to “evaluate or estimate the nature, ability, or quality of”. There are at least three uses of “assessment” in higher education to consider. The first is assessment of students’ abilities, especially in the form of placement tests that identify the appropriate math and English classes for a student. The second is assessing the skills and competencies that students have gained by the end of their academic program. The third is assessment of the quality of academic programs, support services, and administrative departments at an institution of higher education. It is this third usage that will receive our focus here. Placing students into appropriate math and English courses is very important, but assessment of program quality receives much more attention in the national discussion.

2. Assessment is always ongoing.

If you speak with instructors at any level from primary school through post-secondary, they will tell you that they are always assessing their students: Who is paying attention? Who is grasping the material? Who seems confused? Who has a question that they are trying to find the nerve to ask? This allows instructors to pause and connect with the student who seems to need a little extra attention at that moment in time. By taking a moment to connect with the student now, that student is able to re-focus on the material and not get left behind. This pause can often be beneficial to the whole class, and not just to one student.

Of course, there are also more formal assessment activities such as assignments, exams, and standardized tests. Just because formal assessments may happen only a few times per semester, skilled instructors are always using their professional judgment to sense whether students are understanding the material.

3. Assessment can be formative or summative.

Formative assessment takes place while a course is in progress and allows the instructor to make “mid-course corrections” (no pun intended) to help students master the material. Formative assessment helps to form the structure and content of the class.

Summative assessment takes place at the end of the class and serves as an overall summary of what/how much students have learned. The organic assessment discussed above is almost always formative; the more formal an assessment is (e.g., standardized tests) the more likely it is to be a summative assessment.

4. It is not enough to “do” assessment: assessment results must be used.

More than a decade ago, when the shift began to greater levels of accountability in higher education, the focus was on getting more faculty involved in assessing student learning and documenting the results. The regional accreditors in the United States have in many cases taken the lead in communicating these expectations. For the past several years at least, the expectation has evolved such that it is no longer enough to simply “do” assessment. Now the expectation is that the results of assessment are used for continuous improvement. Have we been able to implement meaningful changes, resulting in stronger programs and improved student learning?

5. The results of assessment should also be useful.

Assessment should tell us something interesting and actionable about the program. In this sense assessment isn’t really about the students – it is about showing us where the programs are strong and where they can be improved. If an assessment method has resulted in no meaningful action plans for a few years or if the results seem pretty stable year after year, perhaps it is time to use this assessment less frequently and invest more time and energy in an assessment method that may provide more useful information – where “useful” is defined in terms of helping to identify areas where changes to the program may be beneficial, driving development of meaningful action plans.

6. Assessment activities are best thought of as action research.

Action research is a disciplined process of inquiry with the goal of helping those engaged in the research to improve their actions. In other words, in this context it is research done by the faculty members themselves to improve their programs. When conducting theoretical research, as opposed to action research, the focus is often on the statistical properties of the measurement tools: reliability, validity, etc.

In action research, the measurement tools should be “good enough” to allow the researchers to draw conclusions and plan meaningful actions in response. Statistical reliability and validity are important concepts, but when they become the focus in assessment work the result is usually to slow progress to a crawl and cause the faculty involved to become frustrated and disengaged with the process.

7. Assessment is very different from grading.

A common objection to the increased focus on assessment is to say “I already give my students grades, why can’t we just use the grades to show what students have learned?” As stated above, assessment is really about the quality of the program more than it is about any individual student.

But why aren’t grades sufficient? There are two main reasons. First, grades are too global to allow for any meaningful action plans for improvement. Knowing that the average grade for a class is a “C” does not tell us which concepts, in particular, the students did not grasp. It is certainly possible to examine the results of an exam in detail to gather this information (for example, if students missed question 14 because they misapplied the Pythagorean Theorem), but the overall grades themselves do not provide this information.

The second reason is that, in many cases, total grades include points for behaviors that have little to do with the material itself. For example, it is pretty common for faculty to deduct points for late assignments. Meeting deadlines is a very important discipline but not directly related to mastery of the material itself. We need to take a more granular look at the results to focus on the learning that has (or has not) occurred.

8. Colleagues need time to collaborate on meaningful action plans for improvement.

Teaching is a pretty solitary profession: although programs sometimes have common exams and prescribed lesson plans, faculty often prepare lesson plans, teach lessons, create exams, and assign grades to their students by themselves. Assessment provides an opportunity to break down these walls and give faculty members an opportunity to collaborate meaningfully with their colleagues. In isolation, an individual faculty member can find ways to improve his or her own teaching practices – often by using the organic assessment methods discussed above. But for systematic improvements to a whole program, the program’s faculty must come together to discuss what’s working, what isn’t, and what to do about it. Institutions can help to foster a culture of assessment and continuous improvement by building in time for faculty members to come together to collaborate as colleagues.

9. Assessment isn’t just for academic programs.

Although most assessment discussion centers on academic programs, support and administrative services also can be good foci for assessment activities. Whereas an academic program can have goals to increase student enrollment or improve faculty professional development, a Financial Aid department can have a goal to improve student satisfaction or reduce processing time for new applications. The Advancement Office can have a goal for the amount of donations received or pledged. Assessment works best when every department in an institution embraces the power of assessment for continuous improvement rather than assessment being a “burden” that is shouldered by the faculty alone.

10. SPOL can help to manage the process.

SPOL’s Assessment platform allows institutions to not only document and track assessment results but also track the action plans developed for continuous improvement. The Assessment platform interfaces with Planning to build detailed action plans and track associated expenses via the Budget platform. The Assessment platform allows you to manage assessment at all levels (course level, program level, and institution level) and generate reports that show stakeholders the effectiveness of programs and service areas. Additionally, the Assessment platform also integrates with the Accreditation platform to link assessment activities to accreditation standards for regional and programmatic accreditors.

SPOL also has a team of consultants who have worked in higher education assessment for years and can offer insights and tips on how to make the process run smoothly.

Topics: Continuous Improvement, Institutional Effectiveness, Assessment