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Assessment of Student Learning

Classroom teachers have been evaluating student learning for centuries, but not all assessment is good assessment. Good assessment is systematic and purposeful; it begins with clear and measureable outcomes and uses results of data analysis to affect positive change. At Fontbonne University, student learning is assessed in three major ways. First, general education goals and competencies are assessed through embedded course assignments. Secondly, programs of study are assessed through both direct and indirect measures, and finally, institutional activities are examined to measure their role in student learning.

Assessment is a comprehensive practice that focuses on specific and measurable learning outcomes. The American Association of Higher Education has developed 9 Principles of Good Practices for Assessing Student Learning.

  1. The assessment of student learning begins with educational values. Assessment is not an end in itself but a vehicle for educational improvement. Its effective practice, then, begins with and enacts a vision of the kinds of learning we most value for students and strive to help them achieve. Educational values should drive not only what we choose to assess but also how we do so. Where questions about educational mission and values are skipped over, assessment threatens to be an exercise in measuring what’s easy, rather than a process of improving what we really care about.

  2. Assessment is most effective when it reflects an understanding of learning as multidimensional, integrated, and revealed in performance over time. Learning is a complex process. It entails not only what students know but what they can do with what they know; it involves not only knowledge and abilities but values, attitudes, and habits of mind that affect both academic success and performance beyond the classroom. Assessment should reflect these understandings by employing a diverse array of methods, including those that call for actual performance, using them over time so as to reveal change, growth, and increasing degrees of integration. Such an approach aims for a more complete and accurate picture of learning, and therefore firmer bases for improving our students’ educational experience.

  3. Assessment works best when the programs it seeks to improve have clear, explicitly stated purposes. Assessment is a goal-oriented process. It entails comparing educational performance with educational purposes and expectations--these derived from the institution’s mission, from faculty intentions in program and course design, and from knowledge of students’ own goals. Where program purposes lack specificity or agreement, assessment as a process pushes a campus toward clarity about where to aim and what standards to apply; assessment also prompts attention to where and how program goals will be taught and learned. Clear, shared, implementable goals are the cornerstone for assessment that is focused and useful.

  4. Assessment requires attention to outcomes but also and equally to the experiences that lead to those outcomes. Information about outcomes is of high importance; where students “end up” matters greatly. But to improve outcomes, we need to know about student experience along the way--about the curricula, teaching, and kind of student effort that lead to particular outcomes. Assessment can help us understand which students learn best under what conditions; with such knowledge comes the capacity to improve the whole of their learning.

  5. Assessment works best when it is ongoing, not episodic. Assessment is a process whose power is cumulative. Though isolated, “one-shot” assessment can be better than none, improvement over time is best fostered when assessment entails a linked series of cohorts of students; it may mean collecting the same examples of student performance or using the same instrument semester after semester. The point is to monitor progress toward intended goals in a spirit of continuous improvement. Along the way, the assessment process itself should be evaluated and refined in light of emerging insights.

  6. Assessment fosters wider improvement when representatives from across the educational community are involved. Student learning is a campus-wide responsibility, and assessment is a way of enacting that responsibility. Thus, while assessment efforts may start small, the aim over time is to involve people from across the educational community. Faculty play an especially important role, but assessment’s questions can’t be fully addressed without participation by student-affairs educators, librarians, administrators, and students. Assessment may also involve individuals from beyond the campus (alumni/ae, trustees, employers) whose experience can enrich the sense of appropriate aims and standards for learning. Thus understood, assessment is not a task for small groups of experts but a collaborative activity; its aim is wider, better-informed attention to student learning by all parties with a stake in its improvement.

  7. Assessment makes a difference when it begins with issues of use and illuminates questions that people really care about. Assessment recognizes the value of information in the process of improvement. But to be useful, information must be connected to issues or questions that people really care about. This implies assessment approaches that produce evidence that relevant parties will find credible, suggestive, and applicable to decisions that need to be made. It means thinking in advance about how the information will be used, and by whom. The point of assessment is not to gather data and return “results”; it is a process that starts with the questions of decision-makers, that involves them in the gathering and interpreting of data, and that informs and helps guide continuous improvement.

  8. Assessment is most likely to lead to improvement when it is part of a larger set of conditions that promote change. Assessment alone changes little. Its greatest contribution comes on campuses where the quality of teaching and learning is visibly valued and worked at. On such campuses, the push to improve educational performance is a visible and primary goal of leadership; improving the quality of undergraduate education is central to the institution’s planning, budgeting, and personnel decisions. On such campuses, information about learning outcomes is seen as an integral part of decision making, and avidly sought.

  9. Through assessment, educators meet responsibilities to students and to the public. There is a compelling public stake in education. As educators, we have a responsibility to the publics that support or depend on us to provide information about the ways in which our students meet goals and expectations. But that respirability goes beyond the reporting of such information; our deeper obligation--to ourselves, our students, and society--is to improve. Those to whom educators are accountable have a corresponding obligation to support such attempts at improvement.

These principles were developed under the auspices of the AAHE Assessment Forum with support from the Fund for the Improvement of Postsecondary Education with additional support for publication and dissemination from the Exxon Education Foundation. Copies may be made without restriction. The authors are Alexander W. Astin, Trudy W. Banta, K. Patricia Cross, Elaine El-Khawas, Peter T. Ewell, Pat Hutchings, Theodore J. Marchese, Kay M. McClenney, Marcia Mentkowski, Margaret A. Miller, E. Thomas Moran, and Barbara D. Wright.Reproduced by permission of the publisher. Copyright © 1991, The American Association for Higher Education and Copyright © 2005, by Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Many faculty are tempted to use course or assignment grades to measure student learning. This practice is generally frowned upon. According to Suskie (Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide, Anker Publishing), grades are insufficient because grades include student behaviors that may or may not be related to course goals (i.e. class attendance, participant, late submission of assignments). These practices can help a student earn a fairly high grade even though they did not achieve the learning goal.

Grading standards may be vague or inconsistent and do not correspond to major learning goals:

  • Assignments may not correspond to learning goals (i.e. the goal is critical thinking while the test is multiple choice which emphasizes factual recall).
  • Courses often have multiple sections with different faculty who may grade assignments using different standards.

Grades alone may give insufficient information on student strengths and weaknesses:

  • Grades alone do not always provide meaningful information on exactly what the student have and have not learned.
  • While a grade of B indicates the student has likely learned a good deal about the subject, it is not possible to know what aspects of the subject they have and have not mastered.

Grades do not reflect all learning experiences:

  • Grades give us information on student performance in individual courses or course assignments, but not how well the students have learned key competencies (critical thinking, quantitative reasoning, etc.), holistically over an entire program.

  • Grades do not give us any information about what students learned from their co-curricular experiences.

For more information on assessment of student learning, please consult the schedule of seminars and workshops offered by the Center.

These online sources may also provide some useful information for you:

  • The Association of American Colleges and Universities has investigated the role of assessment in promoting positive learning experiences for students all types of institutions of higher education. At this site you can find copies of articles, references to books, and information about upcoming conferences that focus on shared goals of student learning.
  • Assessment and Evaluation in Higher Education: Some Concepts and Principles from the National Academy for Academic Leadership
  • Assessment & Evaluation in Higher EducationAssessment in Higher Education: a web site devoted to world's best practice in student assessment in higher education, and related topics: here you'll find links to online articles, books, journals, and other relevant information.
  • Every university faculty member wants to achieve many goals within the scope of a typical semester, but no one can accomplish everything. To help you prioritize the learning outcomes for a course, use this online version of Thomas Angelo and Patricia Cross’ Teaching Goals Inventory (from Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers, 1993). Easy to use and a very helpful tool.