Student Learning Assessment in Higher Education: Understanding Where to Begin

For some educators, student learning assessment is a little like exercise. Yes, we know it’s important, we feel better when we do it, and we can even see the results of our efforts, but it sure is a hassle to get started.

Although she can’t motivate you to hop on the treadmill in the morning, Linda Suskie, vice president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education, provided specific guidelines for organizing and launching a student learning assessment program in the Nov. 25th online seminar Getting Started with Student Learning Assessment.

The first step to any higher education assessment initiative is identifying an assessment coordinator and faculty-led assessment committee. While the coordinator acts as part cheerleader and part enforcer to help shepherd projects through the process, it’s the committee that sets the policies and monitors assessment efforts.

“Because educational assessment is part of the teaching-learning process, and because faculty are responsible for designing curricula and pedagogies, faculty should have lead responsibility for designing appropriate assessment processes,” Suskie says.

The next step in any educational assessment plan is to have a clear purpose for why you are assessing (hint: it shouldn’t be because an accreditor told you to). Suskie says the reason for assessment typically falls into one of three categories: to validate a program, to improve a program or to make sure a program isn’t slipping. The assessment results may contribute to changes in learning goals, curriculum, teaching methods, and resource allocations.

One of the most important decisions of the educational assessment committee is determining the benchmarks to use in order to provide the most accurate picture of student learning. There are numerous standards to choose from, including local standards, external standards, class average, national average, value-added benchmark, historical trends benchmark, and even a cost per student calculation. Each standard has advantages and disadvantages and, when taken by itself, gives an incomplete picture. Suskie says that using multiple perspectives gives the most balanced picture of student learning, and will allow you to make smart decisions about your curricular alignment and pedagogies.

“Assessment should not be looked at as a mandate from some bureaucratic agency,” says Suskie. “It should simply be viewed as part of the teaching and learning process and as a powerful tool to help you become an even better teacher. It’s when learning goals aren’t well defined or when there aren’t clear learning opportunities that assessment can be a problem.”