By Gerson Moreno-Riano, March 23, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
An attempt to arrive at a meaning of assessment is much like looking for a needle in a haystack. Definitions abound. For example, in the document “Five Dimensions of Good Assessment,” a document produced by Linda Suskie of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, one finds seventeen different operationalizations of good assessment, each with 7-10 sub-categories. This itself suggests that academics and administrators conceptualize and understand assessment in different ways thus making the task of answering “what is assessment?” a difficult one.
Searching far and wide for a good definition I came across what some of my own political science colleagues are doing and was impressed with their clarity and efficiency. Their latest effort is an edited anthology entitled “Assessment in Political Science” (eds., M.D. Deardorff, K. Hamann, J. Ishiyama, APSA, 2008). This edited collection is divided into three areas: Introductory and theoretical considerations, Departmental and program assessment, and Examples of classroom assessment (as an aside—this is a fine book for other disciplines in the humanities and social sciences). In the opening pages of this book, the authors make the case that assessment can be defined as follows:
- A primary concern with student learning;
- The empirical demonstration to ourselves and to others that our students are actually learning what we would like them to learn and, if not, to discuss and implement what can be done to improve student learning;
- The empirical evaluation of pedagogy, curriculum, and student learning so that we can improve what we do.
I want to believe, in some way or another, that all of us faculty are doing assessment already. I have not met many faculty who do not genuinely care about student learning, about their pedagogy and curricula, and about their own improvement. There are a few scoundrels among us but thankfully they are few. So, most of us are already, it seems to me, assessing student learning.
Then, why are there so many negative reactions against it? And why the external and internal “top-down” approaches to assessment? These will be the subjects of my next posting. For now, I would like to ask three questions for us to ponder:
- Are these definitions problematic or are they right on target?
- What are we already doing to assess the learning of our students, our own pedagogy, and our curriculum?
- Is the task of assessment impossible—can we ever really assess student learning in a meaningful way?
Obviously, these questions are just scratching the surface. But, they should get our thinking juices flowing about our teaching and the learning of our students.