Assessment: Definition and Overview

What is Assessment?
While one can find many definitions of assessment, generally speaking, assessment can be considered the systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs and services undertaken for the purpose of quality improvement, planning, and decision-making.

There are many benefits of assessment in higher education, including:
- Enhanced student learning, development, and engagement
- Stronger programs and services that are self-studied and refined
- Opportunity to make improvements based on accurate evaluations of need
- Improved communication and collaboration amongst units/offices/departments
- Increased accountability with stakeholders

Purposes of Assessment
Two common phrases surrounding assessment recently are "assessment for improvement" and "assessment for accountability." While assessment for accountability's sake is an important reason (and often the impetus) to initiate and conduct assessment, the real benefit to an institution and its students come from the discussions and changes that happen as a result of assessment for improvement. Many faculty and staff are motivated by the benefits of focusing on assessment for the sake of improving the quality of teaching, learning, programs and services, and planning and decision-making. The purpose of assessment for accountability is to demonstrate the effectiveness of programs and services across the institution to various (and often external) audiences, including the federal and state governments, taxpayers, employers, and parents. An assessment cycle effectively addressing assessment for improvement will also provide the necessary evidence for accountability.

Types of Assessment Data
A variety of information is needed to fully understand and make decisions related to an institution's programs, policies, and practices. As a result, there are different types of assessment, each geared toward collecting a specific type of data:

  • Tracking/usage: The data from this type of assessment identifies who is enrolled in programs, participating in activities, taking advantage of services, etc. Essentially, the data set consists of demographic information about people who are "coming in the door." This type of assessment is also helpful for identifying which populations might not be enrolling or participating, and can then lead to decisions regarding outreach and marketing.
  • Satisfaction/importance: The purpose of this common type of assessment data is to identify the importance of and satisfaction with educational experiences and services (e.g., availability of courses, library resources, career preparation programs, athletic facilities, communication of information). These attitudes can be analyzed together in order to determine the need for action. For example, if students are very dissatisfied with an aspect of their college experience that they also rate as very important to them, the institution may consider dedicating more resources to that item than if it was something that was not very important to them.
  • Needs: A needs assessment is conducted to determine what might be missing from the campus experience, and often includes satisfaction and tracking data. Common student populations for which needs assessments are targeted include veterans, commuters, transfers, and non-traditional students. A needs assessment could also be conducted to assess how facilities and services could be improved or enhanced. Often the data from needs assessment can be utilized by many departments and offices across the campus.
  • Learning outcomes: Assessing learning outcomes involves identifying learning goals or outcomes, providing experiences to facilitate the learning, assessing whether or not the intended learning occurred, as then using the resulting information to modify or enhance the teaching and learning process. See Assessment of Student Learning for more information.
  • Campus climate: The purpose of a campus climate assessment is to gather information related to how various constituents (e.g., students, faculty, staff, administration, visitors) perceive the campus. These assessments can be general in nature, often providing data about various aspects of diversity on campus, or they can focus on particular aspect of the campus climate (e.g., the climate for constituents that identify as LGBTQ).
  • Cost effectiveness: Generally speaking, data from this type of assessment is used to determine the extent to which the cost (in terms of not only money, but also time and other resources) of a program or service is aligned with the benefits to the campus community.

Assessment Cycle
What is often referred to as the assessment cycle consists of more than just the actual step of assessment. Generally speaking, the cycle includes:

  1. Identifying goals or outcomes at the division, department, and/or program level.
  2. Implementing strategies for the achievement of the goals or outcomes.
  3. Assessing the extent to which the goals or outcomes were achieved using appropriate methods.
  4. Utilizing the resulting information to improve or enhance the strategies for accomplishing the goals or outcomes.

See Assessment of Student Learning and Assessment of Institutional Effectiveness for more information regarding the cycle specific to those topics.

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