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What is assessment?

Assessment is.

  • A process
  • About collecting information
  • Conducted to improve educational programs
  • A way to demonstrate program effectiveness
  • Focused on student learning and development outcomes
  • A scholarly endeavor
  • Highly valued by university leadership, sponsors, and accreditors
  • Primarily useful for program faculty and leaders

Assessment is NOT...

  • Useless (except if poorly done)
  • An end goal
  • The same as course grades
  • The only information considered when evaluating programs
  • Student satisfaction or opinions

Why do assessment?

There are three types of reasons people conduct program assessment. Each type addresses different program needs and each benefits different program stakeholders.  

Program Improvement

  • Helps program developers identify areas of improvement for the program
  • Shows program developers the actual impact the program has on students


  • Provides parents with evidence of the value a program has for their child
  • Gives prospective students evidence of why they should participate


  • Meets University annual program reporting and program review requirements
  • Addresses accrediting agency program evaluation requirements
  • May apply to other funding or regulatory agencies requirements


How do you do assessment?

Assessment is a six-step cyclical process. The diagram shows the steps of the cycle which are each described in detail below.

Program Objectives

At this stage, program leaders clearly state the impact the program is expected to have on participants (i.e., the program goals). These goals are broken down into more specific statements in the form of learning objectives, statements that specify an observable behavior and expected level of the behavior after completing the program.

The observable behavior in the objective statement is what is measured for assessment. The criteria in the objective statement is the standard which determines whether the objective was achieved. 

PASS provides a workshop on writing learning objectives. Also, please see the "Objectives Dos and Don'ts List" and the "Effective Objectives Checklist" for more information.

Assessment Design

Next, you must plan how the observable behavior stated in the objective will be measured and when. The first challenge in this step is identifying an assessment instrument to measure the observable behavior. For information about assessment instruments, click here.

After finding an instrument, decide how and when it will be used to gather assessment data. Commonly, instruments are administered to program participants before and after the program so that change in the scores can be examined (i.e., pre-post testing). Ideally, the instrument will be given to a group of program participants and non-participants, so that scores can be compared across these groups (i.e., control vs. treatment groups).

When designing the assessment plan, think about how different possible results will be used. Move forward with an assessment plan if there is a clear plan of action for how the results will be used. 

Contact PASS for information about how to get help with selecting your assessment instrument and designing an assessment plan.

Data Collection

Make the assessment happen! Administer the assessment instrument at the planned times and collect trustworthy data.

Things to consider in this step include whether the instrument will be administered online or on paper, who will administer the instrument, and under what conditions. The conditions for administration should be standardized as much as possible. This means that the conditions should be the same for all participants taking the instrument. Standardization increases the comparability of individuals' scores.

Finally, how will students be motivated to complete the instrument? Often with assessment, results on the instruments have little to no consequences for students. Thus, motivating students to take the instrument seriously is the responsibility of the program or the person administering the instrument. Consult with PASS for ideas about ways to improve student motivation on assessments.

Analyze Data

Information gathered through the assessment process can be either qualitative (textual) or quantitative (numbers). There are general guidelines for appropriate analysis of either type of data. In order to ensure that the valuable data is analyzed in a way that maximizes the trustworthiness of the conclusions drawn from the analysis, a person skilled in data analysis methodologies should guide this phase of assessment.

Contact PASS for information about how to get help with data analysis.

Report Results

Every program has multiple stakeholders and different audiences who have interest in one or more aspects of the assessment process. In order to reap the full benefits of conducting assessment, programs should budget and plan for presenting their assessment to each relevant audience. At a minimum, programs should present the results to all involved in the program directly and to direct supervisors.

Reports of assessment results can be verbal or written and can take many different forms. When reporting results to different stakeholders, customize the format and presentation to the specific needs and interests of that audience. When reporting results the goal should always be to maximize the utility and applicability of the results for that audience. Consider why that audience is interested in the assessment results and focus on addressing that interest in your report.  Also, make sure to use language appropriate for the audience.

PASS can help you prepare reports and presentations of your assessment results for multiple audiences! 

Use Results

Assessment is only useless if the results are not used! When done well, assessment provides valuable information that can inform decisions about a program. Regardless of the results of a specific assessment cycle, if the other steps in the cycle were done well, there should be some action that can be made to improve the program for the next cycle.

Often, when just beginning to conduct assessment, results are used to inform changes in the assessment design. After a few assessment cycles, however, the assessment design should be strong enough that the results can be trusted to inform program changes.


Why can't we use course grades for assessment?

Course grades are assigned to individual students to indicate the extent to which a student has met the instructor's expectations for a given set of course requirements. Assessment results are intended to reflect the extent to which all students achieve the objectives of a program. Clearly, grades and assessment differ in that one deals with individuals and courses and the other deals with groups and programs. Why does this difference matter?

How grades are assigned varies across courses and course sections. This means we can't compare grades across courses to make inferences about the program as a whole!

Often, things unrelated to program objectives are considered when assigning grades. This means that grades are not a pure measure of student learning.

Grades are assigned based on one instructor's judgment only. This means that there is a lot of subjectivity in grades. Assessment involves multiple-raters and checks on reliability and validity of scores.

Grades don't tell us what information the student knows and doesn't know. Assessments are intended to provide additional and more descriptive information so that we know more about what each assessment score means about a student's ability-level.


Why don't student opinions or satisfaction count as assessment?

Why can't we just ask students if they thought the program was effective? If students are satisfied with their learning and the program quality, isn't that evidence of effectiveness?

The purpose of assessment is to provide information about the student learning and development that occurs as a result of a program. Student's opinions and satisfaction ratings are considered indirect measures of student learning. They provide some information, but it is insufficient to make inferences about the program. In order to feel comfortable basing decisions about a program on assessment results, the assessment needs to use a direct measure of student learning. Direct measures means that scores reflect the student's actual level of knowledge or development.




James Madison University