In a nutshell, the assessment of student learning involves three things: Defining what we want students to learn; measuring student performance against those criteria; and evaluating overall student learning with an eye toward maximizing the effectiveness of our learning programs. This process is symbolized in the diagram below. Defining what we care about (i.e., what we want students to learn) requires us to work collectively to determine our values as a college and to come to broad agreements about how we want to affect our students—in terms of what they know, what they can do, how they think, and how they feel. This can be very difficult work, but it serves as the roadmap for planning, budgeting, and decision making.
Figure 2: The Assessment Process
At times, the assessment process will bring a new perspective to the discussions about goals, objectives, and outcomes. In the context of assessment, we now have the expectation of measuring what we say we care about. A goal that looks great on paper but does not translate into meaningful measurement will not provide us with much useful feedback. That type of goal would leave us in the dark, wondering whether we ever make any progress. Even if the words inspire us at first, our efforts to make a difference will run out of steam without the encouragement that assessment feedback can provide.
Some people confuse a comprehensive assessment program with the task of data collection. Data collection is an important step in the overall program, but data collection should not take place in a vacuum. Information that is gathered for the sake of “data collection” will probably sit in a pile in someone’s office, having no impact on faculty, students, or the college. Genuine assessment, which begins with institutional curiosity, will lead to data collection that is goal-driven. The results of these assessments will be viewed as vital because we care deeply about the goals and about the outcome of our hard work.
It is hard to identify the “most important part of assessment,” but using assessment results to make changes in our learning programs would be high on the list. High-quality assessment will give us important feedback about the strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities within our programs. This feedback is diagnostic because it helps us do something to reinforce our strengths and to address our weaknesses to ensure that our students are capitalizing on their opportunities to learn within our programs.