Assessment Overview
and Assessment 101

What is assessment? Why should we do it?

Assessment is:

  • A set of bureaucratic practices foisted upon higher education by mean-spirited bean counters
  • A means of systematically studying student learning outcomes and making improvements based on evidence using rigorously tested measurements
  • A plot to make higher education more corporate
  • Systematic curiosity about learning
  • A headache wrapped in a hassle inside a nightmare
  • All of the above

To some extent, the "assessment movement" is an external response to perceived problems in higher education, ranging from low graduation rates to high costs. At Gustavus, the external pressure for assessment tends to come from accreditation. As a college, we need to demonstrate to the Higher Learning Commission every ten years that we take the challenge of improving conditions for student learning seriously and that we have evidence that students do learn. The good news is that the Higher Learning Commission doesn't  have any particular recipe for doing that work. We can decide on what we think our students should learn, how we should assess that learning, and how to organize what we do with that information.  

The way that Gustavus has approached assessment most closely resembles answer D—systematic curiosity. This guide is an attempt to avoid answer E and to provide a local response to F. We don't have the resources to rely only on rigorously tested measures and we have no institutional desire to treat learning as a business or to bureaucratize our best efforts. What we do have is deep interest in our students and in how they learn. We hope this short guide will help reduce the headaches and make it easier to make the most of our curiosity.

Assessment of student learning is not the same as grading student work, teacher evaluation, or Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL). Grades and teacher evaluations are a measure of how students (and teachers) perform in a particular course. While those may prompt curiosity—why are some students just not getting this material? Why do some students love this assignment and others hate it?—assessment is a way of exploring and discussing student learning more broadly than through grades or teacher evaluation, which are intended for individual improvement. SoTL is a way to apply the methods and standards we use in our research to exploring questions about student learning, but it tends to be focused and carefully designed and structured. Assessment needs to be ongoing and broad. We don't have the luxury of making all of our assessments as rigorous as SoTL projects.   

Best practices

In her very useful handbook, Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide, Linda Suskie describes the following characteristics of good assessment measures:

  • They give us good information that is also reasonably accurate
  • They are fair to students and are carried out ethically
  • They are systematic
  • They don't cost more than they are worth

She suggests the following practices:

  • State clearly what you want students to learn
  • Teach what you assess
  • Collect more than one kind of evidence of learning
  • Use assessment results appropriately
  • Revise assessment strategies as needed

It's also important that you keep some kind of systematic records of what you're discovering about student learning and that you have opportunities as a department or program to examine and act on your findings. Assessment should be for us and for our students. Being able to describe how we are systematically curious about learning, what we have learned, and what we have done as a result should satisfy our external audiences.  

Assessment plans

Every department developed an assessment plan in 1998 using a common template. Chances are you aren't sure what that plan looks like or where it is. Assessment plans need periodic revision as programs change, new faculty come on board, measures are refined, and as our curiosity leads us to new questions. Ideally, every program and department should revisit their assessment plan on a regular basis and make changes as needed.

Assessment tools

There are many, many examples available of tools that can help a department or program formalize their curiosity. These tools may include

  • Rubrics
  • Student reflection
  • Portfolios
  • Tests
  • Surveys, focus groups, interviews
  • Using published instruments
  • Using information from campus-wide or national surveys

Assessment process

In keeping with Gustavus tradition, each department is free to develop their own means of gathering and using assessment information. These ideas are merely suggestions.

  • Discuss and update your departmental assessment plan at a department meeting or retreat. If you haven't changed it since 1998, it's very likely your learning outcomes have changed. Strategic plans developed in 2009 may provide a foundation for this work. Are the measures you are using working? Are they taking too much time or not providing information that is useful? Take the time to scale back, modify, or change your assessment measures.
  • Designate a member of the department or a team to drive assessment efforts. This shouldn't be the sole job of the department chair. Consult with the department's administrative assistant about the best ways to keep consistent records.
  • Hold an annual retreat at which the department can review findings and discuss implications for the curriculum. The Provost's office has a line set aside for funding assessment activities. 
  • Share your conclusions among yourselves, with your students, and with any interested stakeholders.

The Program Assessment and Development Committee is happy to consult with anyone who wants to explore ideas or share information about assessment activities and outcomes.