What is assessment & why do we do it?

For some, asessment may be a new buzzword or the academic term de jour. But in its simplest form, assessment is something that every good teacher does. We come up with a goal for the lesson, unit, course or program – we teach, review, test and somehow try to determine if the students are learning – then we use that information to improve our lessons, unit, course, goal or program.  What’s new is an expectation that we share what our goals are, how we measure them, and how we can use that information to improve what we do.

The American Association for Higher Education has even come up with a list of “Principles for Assessing Student Learning:”

  • The assessment of student learning begins with educational values.
  • Assessment is most effective when it reflects an understanding of learning as multidimensional, integrated, and revealed in performance over time.
  • Assessment works best when the programs it seeks to improve have clear, explicitly stated purposes.
  • Assessment requires attention to outcomes but also and equally to the experiences that lead to those outcomes.
  • Assessment works best when it is ongoing, not episodic.
  • Assessment fosters wider improvement when representatives from across the educational community are involved.
  • Assessment makes a difference when it begins with issues of use and illuminates questions that people really care about.
  • Assessment is most likely to lead to improvement when it is part of a larger set of conditions that promote change.
  • Through assessment, educators meet responsibilities to students and to the public.


Just to complicate things, however, assessment has taken on a variety of meanings in higher education. According to the University of Massachusetts Office of Academic Planning and Assessment (Stassen, Doherty, & Poe, 2004):

The term can refer to the process faculty use to grade student course assignments, to standardized testing imposed on institutions as part of increased pressure for external accountability, or to any activity designed to collect information on the success of a program, course, or University curriculum. These varied uses have, unfortunately, moved us away from a focus on the central role that assessment should play in educational institutions – the gathering of information to improve institutional practices. (p. 5)

Dr. Barbara E. Walvoord, a professor emerita from Notre DameUniversity and frequent presenter on the topic of assessment and how to make it useful, simplified it. She wrote, “Assessment of student learning is the systematic gathering of information about student learning and the factors that assess student learning, undertaken with resources, time and expertise available for the purpose of improving learning”  (Walvoord, n.d., p. 2).

But how do we do it? She also suggested that all assessment can be broken down into three basic steps:

  1. Articulate learning goals

“When students complete this (course, major, gen-ed program) we want them to be able to…”

  1. Gather information about how well students are achieving the goals and why
  2. Use the information for improvement (Walvoord, n.d., p. 2).

Many colleges and colleagues visualize the process as a continuum of change. Ed Bachman and Jo Ann W. Baria of PierceCollege in the state of Washington presented a description of the assessment cycle that provided a good visual representation of how outcomes can drive a cycle of assessment that results in continuous improvement.

Pierce College Assessment Cycle Graphic

Figure 1: Pierce College Assessment Cycle

So, what is assessment? Something all good teachers do – and, honestly, what all good learners do. Set goals, measure how close to them we get, and use that information to improve our teaching and learning.

Why do we do it? To make a difference. As Barbara E. Walvoord, Ph.D. said, “The end of assessment is action.” Good teachers, program directors, deans and learners don’t want to just share information or gather data; we want to use it to make a difference. This publication will help provide some tools and tips for assessment, planning and action.

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