What is Assessment?
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:

  1. A primary concern with student learning;
  2. 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;
  3. 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:

  1. Are these definitions problematic or are they right on target?
  2. What are we already doing to assess the learning of our students, our own pedagogy, and our curriculum?
  3. 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.

Tags: No subjects

Lee Trepanier on Apr 14, 2009 at 3:27 am

I can share our experience with assessment for accreditation purposes, which may (or may not) be enlightening. First, our union was able to negotiate in our contract that departmental members who were in charge of assessment were given release-time. I think this is something often overlooked by administrators when requiring departmental assessments. If faculty are given enough time and are willing, assessment can be done effectively and actually be helpful in future departmental development.

Second, departments were left to design their own assessments, which ultimately would be submitted for approval to administrators and accreditation officials. This not only allow people who know their subjects the best to match national standards in their discipline but also design an effective assessment tool to their particular circumstances: Is the department mission’s writing-intensive, internship-oriented, or promotes vocational education? What type of students do they deal with? What resources are available for them to achieve their stated goals?

For example, one of our department’s objectives, if not the main one, is to make our students better writers. We have assigned two of faculty members to oversee the assessment process who evaluate one-page essays that students have to write at the beginning and end of the semester, after they have read a short passage by an unknown author (it’s Hitler). We not only assess things such as identification of the thesis statement but also political knowledge of the student, e.g., how would you describe the political ideology of the author? Overall, we have the results helpful and occasionally surprising (it’s a bit scary how many students agree with the author).

I have found assessment useful rather than burdensome, if done reasonably and with the understanding it’s a tool and not an end in itself. My suspicion why most faculty react negatively to assessment is that it is seen as something being imposed upon them from outside (whether accreditation agencies or university administrators) as well as a philosophical relativism that pervades the academy: How can there be objective standards to evaluate teaching when everything is subjective, relative, and has to promote self-esteem (most of all, the professor’s)?

Phil Hamilton on Apr 18, 2009 at 3:04 am

These postings are helpful and appreciate this discussion. However, I still lean more toward the negative side of assessment. My reasons are that it IS burdensome, tedious, and really doesn't deliver a great deal of useful information (in my opinion). I certainly know when I grade my students' papers whether or not they are learning how to write well and think critically. I will admit that it is helpful to see my department's statistics on these matters (after we calculate our numbers using our assessment instruments). Furthermore, we do need some assessment results for university accreditation purposes. Therefore, I basically view assessment as a necessary evil, sort of like grading. I don't really like doing it, but that's why what we do is sometimes called "work."

Gerson Moreno-Riano on Apr 20, 2009 at 4:14 am

Dear Phil and Lee,

Thanks for your comments on this post. I continue to straddle the fence on this one. I see that it can be very helpful at times while at times I completely agree with Phil's notion of "necessary evil."

I am concerned, as many are, with the notion of measurement as well as with the possibility that assessment may actually drive down quality and expectations. I mentioned this in my last post. I don't have evidence for this- really only a sort of hunch. But if student learning is more than just measuring some quantitative outcomes, then I am afraid assessment may hurt more than help. Again, I continue to be ambivalent about this but, as I am sure you both agree, we need to be conversant with the movement and expectations of our universities.

about the author

Gerson Moreno-Riano
Gerson Moreno-Riano

Gerson Moreno-Riano has been appointed as Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Regent University.  He is also an associate professor of government at Regent.  He has been at Regent since 2006.

Moreno-Riano's latest publications include the co-authored The Prospect of Internet Democracy (Ashgate, 2009) and the edited volume The World of Marsilius of Padua (Brepols, 2007).  He is currently at work on two commissioned projects: 1) a companion to Marsilius of Padua and 2) organizational evil in the modern era.