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Frequently asked questions about assessment at Penn State

What is assessment?

Assessment is a very broad term that can have very different meanings depending on the context. For example, a psychologist administering a test to determine personality traits is engaging in “assessment.” In the context of education, the focus of assessment is student learning. Even within education, there are various definitions of assessment. For example, according to Walvoord (2004), assessment is “the systematic collection of information about student learning, using the time, knowledge, expertise, and resources available, in order to inform decisions about how to improve learning.” Another useful definition of assessment in the context of Penn State's student learning assessment efforts is the following, from Linda Suskie (2009) of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education. “Assessment is the ongoing process of establishing clear, measurable expected outcomes of student learning, ensuring that students have sufficient opportunities to achieve those outcomes, systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well students learning matches the expectations and using the resulting information to understand and improve student learning.” In the context of higher education, the ultimate goal of assessment is to improve student learning.


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How is assessment different from evaluation?

Assessment is sometimes confused with evaluation. But it is important to differentiate between the two, which use similar methods but have different ultimate goals. Like assessment, there is no one consistent definition of evaluation. The following definition comes from Goldman and Zakel (2009). “Evaluation is the analysis and use of data by faculty to make judgments about student performance. Evaluation includes the determination of a grade or a decision regarding pass/fail for an individual assignment or for a course.”


For example, you may assign a research paper in your course that is designed to determine how well students can search and summarize a body of literature. Using a rubric, you “evaluate” the papers and assign grades that reflect the level at which an individual student performs the assignment. In this case, you are comparing the work to a standard in order to determine a grade. You can use the same rubric to determine what aspects of the assignment the students, as a group, do well with and what aspects they are less proficient at. When you use this information to change your teaching methods, for example, in an attempt to improve student performance on this paper the next time you teach the course, you are doing “assessment.”


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Why do we have to do this?

The main purpose of assessment is to improve student learning. Assessment allows for evidence-based decision making about curriculum, pedagogy, advising and student support. At the program level, assessment provides program faculty evidence that allows them to improve program outcomes. At the course level, assessment helps instructors evaluate whether students achieved the identified course objectives and provides information to improve the course.


In addition, the recent accreditation review of 2005 resulted in the recommendation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education that we “document the development of a comprehensive plan for the assessment of student learning that is linked to the overall assessment of institutional effectiveness and to the institute's strategic planning process.” Penn State is required to provide an interim report in June 2010 and is scheduled for a re-evaluation by Middle States in 2014-2015.


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What are the benefits of assessment?

Course and program assessment can provide data that will help course instructors, programs, and departments make informed decisions in terms of the program strengths and areas for improvement. In addition, the data collected for assessment can also be used for other purposes such as annual reviews.


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When does this have to be done? How often do we have to assess the program?

Program assessment is an ongoing process of identifying goals and objectives, collecting and analyzing data, and making modifications (when necessary for improvement). That being said, programs need not assess every goal and objective every year, but the program should have a plan for periodically assessing all aspects. A program might choose to adopt a process of rotating through the goals and objectives on a regular schedule. It might also opt to initially prioritize and target particular goals.


At Penn State, the Middle State Commission on Higher Education expects evidence of some progress on assessment by 2010.


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Where can I find examples of goals and objectives?

Many Penn State programs have posted program goals on their websites. Also see Identifying program goals and Identifying desired measurable learning objectives from the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence


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How should we begin?

The three steps of assessment are:

  1. Articulate your goals and objectives for student learning.
  2. Gather evidence about how well students are meeting the goals.
  3. Use the information to make any modifications necessary to improve student learning.

For details about the assessment process, see Assessing Student Learning.


A good way to start the program assessment process is to appoint an assessment coordinator or committee. The committee can then begin by identifying program goals. There are two ways to identify goals. One way is to gather examples from other programs and 'edit' them. Alternatively, you might review course syllabi and identify themes, common expectations of student learning, or sequential expectations that ALL students are expected to meet upon program completion. Once you have identified broad goals, the next step is to write measurable objectives that will address those goals.


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Will assessment results be used for individual faculty evaluation?

According to Walvoord (2004), assessment of student learning is conducted in order to determine what faculty as a whole can do to improve learning of students in their program. It should not be used as an evaluation of an individual faculty member. When there is evidence of inadequate student learning, faculty members and the department should collectively take appropriate action to address the issues and make improvement. In addition, end-of-course evaluations, aggregated across program faculty, could produce some useful information (Suskie, 2009).


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What should a completed Academic Program Assessment Report look like (format, length, etc.)?

The yearly report should include a single program level learning objective chosen for the upcoming academic year, and method(s) for measuring the objective. The report should also include the results from the previous academic year's assessment and plans for changes based on that information. See Assessment Report Template (pdf).


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Why aren’t course grades adequate indicators for program assessment?

Course letter grades are insufficient for program assessment because:

Although the composite course grades are insufficient for program assessment, students' grades that reflect a specific learning objective can be used for program assessment. For example, instructors can link an item in an exam or an assignment to a specific learning objective. Then the corresponding scores can be used to represent students' learning achievement on the objective, which can serve as data for program assessment.


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How can the Schreyer Institute for Teaching Excellence help with the assessment effort?

The Schreyer Institute is here to support your assessment endeavors. We can help in the following ways:

  1. Provide consultations on assessment-related issues, such as writing learning goals, choosing measures, etc.
  2. Provide custom workshops on assessment
  3. Sponsor or co-sponsor conferences
  4. Review drafted learning goals/outcomes or assessment plans
  5. Disseminate resources and best practices for assessment
  6. Provide teaching support grants for program assessment

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