Assessment to Improve Student Learning

David F. Brakke, Dean College of Science and Mathematics
Douglas T. Brown, Vice President for Academic Affairs, James Madison University

Assessment is a process of ongoing formative and summative evaluation that should be easily understood and embraced for what it can do to improve student learning and the quality of our institutions. Results of assessment are the drivers of reform, and thus any efforts to improve student learning must be tied to on-going evaluation and assessment. The assessment movement got off to a rocky start; it has unfortunately been viewed suspiciously by many faculty members as not a means of gaining useful information about student attitudes, preconceptions, learning or understanding, but rather instead as a means of evaluating their scholarly work. Thus, faculty bristle when politicians speak of accountability, fearing intrusions into how the curriculum is designed or delivered.

Faculty understand and appreciate the conceptual basis for assessment, which is something like research in educational practice, even if they might not relate to assessment language, or feel it restricts their academic freedom (a phrase that is often interpreted to mean something well beyond what is intended or reasonable). This unfortunate tie for some faculty to accountability or institutional effectiveness has been confusing and led in many cases to widespread resistance.

But today's environment is more complex than before; as institutions we ignore public calls for accountability to our potential peril. What can we say to parents, students or the larger public if we do not establish clear goals and examine our progress toward meeting them? The critical questions are:

  • how can we better frame and structure the conversation about assessment?
  • what should we focus on and can we determine how assessment should be done and the results used?
  • who needs to know?

For example, the politician has a practical interest in knowing something about outcomes. They may legitimately ask how we document student performance or demonstrate what is accomplished with the investment made in our public institutions. Students and parents may wonder why a curriculum is structured in a certain way and ask what the requirements and offerings established by our departments and institutions are intended to achieve. They may ask, for example, about the goals of our general education programs and how or if they are they tied to the university's mission, or built upon in the major? We should not assume that general education learning objectives are synonymous with what we might expect of graduates. Disciplinary and professional programs for majors should have clearly stated learning outcomes also. Institutions talk about being student-centered, but without an explicit definition of what is expected of students and how the ‘student-centeredness' will be measured," our responses to politicians, parents and students will be unconvincing.

There is significant value in the various forms and approaches of assessment. Faculty need to understand how formative assessment helps document how students' attitudes and conceptual understanding are changing as a result of what they are learning in their courses and labs. Faculty also need to understand that real data about impact on student learning can bolster requests to administrators for new programs, or more sophisticated instrumentation. Even for such things that many consider valuable, such as undergraduate research experiences, there is yet too little evidence to support assumptions and assertions about the efficacy of this experience. This becomes, at the institutional level, an undertaking that goes beyond the work of an individual faculty member or department. Setting an agenda for formative evaluation that is linked to institutional decision-making about budgets, curricular programs must become a campus-wide priority.

When this becomes such a priority, then one barrier to faculty awareness and use can be addressed. There are many faculty who recognize a need for assessment conceptually but do not have the background to make use of assessment as a tool. The institution-wide approach also helps move from a negative mind-set in regard to evaluation, re-centering the focus on the development of the whole student. This discussion needs to be widespread and include proponents and skeptics alike, along with faculty and staff with experience in quantitative and qualitative assessments so that a more complete assessment of changes– in student attitudes, perceptions, integration of knowledge and conceptual understanding as a result of their campus experiences in and beyond the classroom– can be realized.

In today's world, the education of the whole student is perhaps best cast in terms of teaching all students what we expect educated citizens to know, and then quantitative, scientific, and technological literacy or reasoning then are our focus. The attention on the skills of citizenship suggests students leave able to communicate, are facile with technology and quantitative approaches within the disciplines and professional programs. These conversations should recognize the enhancement in the major of skills and competencies that build from general education and represent our overall educational impact.

What we have found works is a structure for assessment programs that:

  • moves the focus from teaching to learning, a focus reflected in the performance evaluation of individuals and departments
  • considers goals and measurable outcomes for general education and major programs
  • is based on findings of cognitive research
  • reflects clear institutional purpose and vision for skills and abilities expected of all students
  • gives attention to the cognitive development of the student;
  • gives attention to the attitudes and preconceptions of the student
  • effectively demonstrates impact of our teaching practice and other experiences on the learning of students.

The assessment of student learning is an effective organizing frame for work in our institutions. It also can be an effective way to focus our attention on what is most important, the development and learning of students. By building a culture focused on student learning and development, assessment will follow as a direct consequence. Our own curiosity and empirical nature will not let us focus on learning and then fail to attempt to measure how well we might be doing. Resulting from this attention will also be enhanced communication across a campus that is centered on a shared value – student learning.

Assessment could be feared if we worried about what we might learn. But if we had evidence that something was not producing what we wanted, wouldn't we try to make adjustments in our curricula and their delivery? With meaningful assessment, we can build an adaptive curriculum that is responsive to what we learn from the results. In turn, that should produce a campus that becomes a learning organization, capturing information and making effective use of it in continuing to improve.

As assessment becomes part of a culture, and not apart from it, it becomes a collective responsibility to accomplish – one that is translated into action in the individual, departmental and institutional levels, each informing the other. It must be supported at all levels with meaningful structures, e.g. teaching and learning centers, and not only recognized but valued in our evaluation procedures for individuals, departments and colleges. We suggest it is therefore necessary to recognize and reward a department for collective accomplishments.

Finally, to see education as a process and learning as the outcome frees us to experiment and to find ways to demonstrate our effectiveness. It is remarkable that as scientists and educators we know so little about how students learn and how we might improve that learning. Even for things we assume to be self-evident, such as undergraduate research experiences, have been typically evaluated on the basis of students going on to graduate degrees and not on the learning process or how their experience resulted in improved critical thinking skills or cognitive development. Assessment of student outcomes can be an effective mechanism resulting in positive and sustained change and improvement in our institutions. We have much to gain as individuals, departments and institutions by focusing on what we can learn through effective assessment and so very much to lose if we cannot explain to our publics and constituents the value of what we do in terms of student learning, development and the abilities they carry from our colleges and universities. Accomplishing this goal will require effective, outward looking leadership that sees interrelationships and connectivity within an institution and the collective responsibility for educating all students.