Successful assessment requires broadly delineating explicit and focused expectations and setting appropriate criteria and standards for learning quality. Assessment tends to work best when embedded within larger institutional and program-level systems, designed and executed by academic faculty members themselves, with support from respective units and administrative personnel within the university.
Why is assessment important?
We believe that university instructors improve, and ultimately succeed, by becoming more reflective and contemplative in their day-to-day praxis. Faculty—and, by extension, their students—are well served by setting meaningful goals, monitoring progress, and making adjustments in their department/program to improve student learning. Consider some of the questions you as an educator may grapple with on a regular basis:
- How strong are my students’ research skills, and what areas of research training warrant further emphasis?
- To what extent should and can my students apply what they are learning outside class? What knowledge is essential to the job market? In what fields?
- Do my introductory courses attempt to cover too much?
- Should we revise the sequence of our courses to enable students to learn more effectively?
By thinking about assessment strategically and systematically, you will have a better framework through which to work both independently and with department colleagues to address these types of issues.
What’s the difference between direct and indirect assessment?
Both direct and indirect methods of learning assessment relate to whether the method provides evidence in the form of student products or performances. Such evidence demonstrates that actual learning has occurred as it relates to a specific content or skill.
- Indirect methods reveal characteristics associated with learning, but they only imply that learning has occurred. These characteristics may relate to the students, such as perceptions of student learning, or they may relate to the institution, such as graduation rates.
- Direct methods provide concrete evidence of whether a student has command of a specific subject or content area, can perform a certain task, exhibits a particular skill, demonstrates a certain quality in his or her work, or holds a particular value.
How does assessment differ from examination?
Examination is certainly a part of assessment—and an important one at that—but an exclusive focus on exams may distort the larger picture. Through exams, you essentially determine how much knowledge students have acquired and subsequently assign grades based on those determinations. But what if most of your students consistently fail to attain the marks you expect of them? Or what if, despite their success on exams, your students are moving to other courses or even graduating without the types of skills you believe they should have before they enter the job market or apply to graduate school?
These questions require us to think beyond the mere instruments of assessment (of which exams are one) and consider what purposes those instruments should ultimately be deployed for. An effective assessment program has to include agreed-upon learning outcomes or learning goals for all students in the program, regardless of the courses they take. Faculty—in both their own courses and when considering their departments as a whole—must agree on how they are going to determine what students have learned and then compare that to what they believe students, in the most ideal sense, should have learned.
When assessing students as a group rather than on an individual basis, it’s important to look at assessment results from both course- and program-level perspectives, analyze those results, and determine whether they mandate revisions in the department/program.
Why the emphasis on student learning assessment now?
Georgetown has always been committed to excellence in teaching and learning. Underlying this commitment is the question: How do we know our students are achieving the learning goals we have established for them? In this regard, student learning assessment has always been part of our culture, even if many of us might not have called what we do “assessment.” Part of the reason the assessment process has escalated in importance recently is because higher education is being held more accountable by the public—our stakeholders on every level. We’re being asked to demonstrate our assertion that our students are indeed achieving the learning goals we set out for them, and to do this, we need systematic data. That said, the only substantial aspect that has changed is that now we ask faculty to engage in the assessment process by systemically producing documentation that enables us all to learn what works and what doesn’t in relation to our students’ learning. This collective experience can lead us all to strengthen both our curriculum and ourselves as faculty. We at Georgetown fully embrace this change.