Assessing Assessment: Five Keys to Success

There are those in the academic community who dread hearing and reading about assessment. But aside from the mandatory reporting required by credentialing and accreditation agencies, how can faculty members be sure that all of the assessment activities they are required to report actually produce change and are not just more paperwork?

The university where I teach is accredited by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) and is on the new review cycle. As part of that initiative, members of the university assessment committee, of which I am a member, are charged with reviewing program assessment plans and reporting to the accreditation committee. This article was prompted by research that I conducted for the committee to develop a new and more inclusive rubric. The information I learned is taking our assessment review from basic to advanced and is allowing us to develop a more in-depth and inclusive rubric for analyzing assessment plans.

There are some excellent resources on program assessment that can drive the right questions when assessing assessment. The Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) provides multiple resources to guide institutions. Boiling it down to some key areas can help you decide as a faculty if you are on the right track in developing your assessment materials. There are five main areas that assessment reporting should cover.

1. Learning Outcomes. Is there a comprehensive list of program learning outcomes? By that we mean the knowledge, skills, and values students are expected to know at the completion of the program. Depending on whether it is an undergraduate or graduate program, the level of sophistication may be different. There should be no strict rule on the number of outcomes addressed, but the list should be reasonable, well-organized, and take into account any national disciplinary standards that are appropriate.

2. Assessable Outcomes. Are the learning outcomes measurable? The statements should specify what students can do to demonstrate their learning. Criteria for demonstration are usually addressed in rubrics and there should be specific examples of work that doesn’t meet expectations, meets expectations, and exceeds expectations. One of the main points here involves faculty communication – have all faculty agreed on explicit criteria for assessing each outcome? This can be a difficult accomplishment when multiple sections of a course are taught or different adjuncts are teaching. However, faculty should agree on what is assessed and how it is assessed.

3. Assessment Alignment. Is the curriculum (course sequence) aligned to support opportunities for students to develop knowledge for each program outcome? This design is sometimes in the form of a curriculum map, which can be created in something as easy as an Excel spreadsheet. Courses should be examined to see which program outcomes they support, and if the outcome is assessed within the course. After completion, program outcomes should be mapped to multiple courses within the program. If a course doesn’t support a program outcome, why is it being taught?

4. Assessment Planning. Faculty need to have a specific plan in place for assessing each outcome. Is that outcome being taught in the second course of the sequence sufficient to meet the program outcomes assessed in the capstone course? Outcomes don’t need to be assessed every year, but faculty should plan to review the assessment data over a reasonable period of time and develop a course of action if the outcome is not being met.

5. Student Experience. Students who are enrolled in a program should be fully aware of the expectations of the program. Are program outcomes aligned on the syllabus so that students are aware of not only what course objectives they are required to meet, but also how the program outcomes are supported? Do students and other stakeholders participate in review of outcomes, criteria, or related activities? Many outside accreditors also require communicating program outcomes to other relevant parties, including the community, business partners, and advisory councils. Assessment documents should clearly communicate what is being done with the data results and how it is contributing to improvement of the program and curriculum.

Assessment can be a dirty word at the university level. Accountability has become a sore issue, particularly with claims of infringement of academic freedom. With good planning, content experts can continue to teach what they are good at, while at the same time making sure they are providing the best educational experience possible. Assessment doesn’t have to be a dirty word – it just has to be done.

Dr. Vickie Kelly is program director and assistant professor of technology administration at Washburn University.