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JMU >> CARS >> Assessment Resources >> The Assessment Process

Assessment Process

It is our hope that this document will serve as a useful tool for James Madison University (JMU) faculty and for faculty from other institutions interested in the process of assessment. We have provided a general framework of assessment practice that that takes you from the early stages of assessment-specification of program focus-through the later stages of assessment -maintenance of assessment practice. We being this process with a bit of background about the role of the Center for Assessment and Research Studies (CARS) in JMU's assessment efforts, we then take you through each phase of the assessment process, providing examples as needed. The phases of the assessment process included 1) specification of program focus; 2) development of goals and objectives; 3) linkage of goals and objectives to curriculum; 4) linkage of goals and objectives to assessment methods; 5) linkage of curricular experiences to data collection points; 6) method identification; 7) method selection; 8) method construction, pilot, and refinement; and 9) maintenance of assessment practice.

CARS faculty assist departments and programs in the development and maintenance of strong assessment programs. This assistance is extended to all our University programs: undergraduate or graduate - student affairs or academic. We serve in a consulting role to assist faculty and staff throughout the process of assessment.

Specification of Program Focus

An important and useful place to begin the assessment process is to consider the context within which a program functions and operates. For example, an academic program actually has several homes; the program resides within a department, a school or college, and the university as a whole. Some academic programs also maintain strong relationships with agencies external to the university. For example, many nursing programs have relationships with hospitals and external nursing facilities that provide experiential and professional opportunities for students while providing service to the community. The congruence of a program's mission with that of each of the larger units represents an important linkage by which the maintenance and support for programs can be assured or jeopardized.

Development of Goals and Objectives

The development of a design for assessment requires that we have a clear and shared idea of what it is we are trying to measure. This is one of the most difficult but also one of the most important stages of assessment program design. We begin by delineating the goals and objectives of the program. Our staff help faculty to arrive at clear statements of the goals and objectives of their programs. We find that when the goals and objectives are clearly described, the appropriate assessment methods become apparent. Good goals and objectives are the engine that drives the assessment process. Once the goals and objectives are drafted, we encourage program faculty to revisit them frequently to ensure that they remain aligned with actual instruction and program delivery.

Many goals and objectives may not be easily measured. It is very important at this stage of program design to respect the complexity of the phenomenon under study. There are many important goals that are difficult to describe, let alone measure. An important program objective should not be abandoned simply because we cannot think of an easy way to measure it. For example, the JMU's Social Work department has struggled for many years with the refinement of a process and outcome that they refer to as "the development of professional self." We believe this objective is a very important component of being an effective social worker. We remain committed to it, though we are not yet satisfied with our assessment of this goal.

Linkage of Goals and Objectives to Curriculum

When program goals and objectives have been drafted, discussed, and agreed upon by faculty members, a useful exercise is to link the goals and objectives to the program's curricular experiences offered to students. For example, a chart-like the one below-can be constructed that lists each of the goals and objectives of the program matched with the opportunities the program provides to meet each objective. In this way, faculty and students can see where and in what sequence goals and objectives are addressed and reinforced. The experience of several programs has indicated that this is a valuable process. Through this method, faculty members have discovered that the information they thought was covered in previous classes was not. Other programs have indicated this information has been particularly beneficial for new faculty members in providing structure for course planning and instructional delivery. They know what their courses are intended to do, and they can plan accordingly.

Objective Courses and co-curricular opportunities where the objective is addressed
Objective 2:  


Linkage of Goals and Objectives to Assessment Methods

With the goals and objectives outlined and with assurances that students will have the opportunity to learn and practice them, faculty then identify appropriate assessment methods. Many programs have found it useful to develop a matrix that links the selected assessment method(s) to each of the program goals and objectives, as is shown in the example below. It is not necessary to develop a different method for each objective. For example, a knowledge test can be designed to assess a variety of objectives, and a performance task can be designed to address several objectives. Some program goals are simply not amenable to measurement with a multiple-choice or selected-response instrument. There are many assessment methods from which to choose: selected-response tests, constructed response tests, recitals, performance tasks, surveys of different groups, focus groups, or interviews. It may not be possible to develop methods to assess all of your goals and objectives right away. The important thing is to get started and to develop a plan to do so. In addition, it may not be feasible to assess all goals each year. However, it is important to create a systematic plan to meaningfully assess all goals on a reasonable schedule.

Methods Methods to Assess Objective


Linkage of Curricular Experiences to Data Collection Points

Once assessment methods have been identified, it is necessary to decide when to administer them. Characteristics of many curricular designs provide natural opportunities for assessment data collection. Examples of data collection points are entry level, keystone course, and capstone course.

For many program goals, it may be useful to assess student understanding when they enter the major. An entry level required course that serves as an introduction to the major can serve as a fine pre-test data collection point. JMU's Communication Science and Disorders undergraduate program has taken advantage of their entry level course to provide new majors with an opportunity to see the kinds of competencies and knowledge they will be expected to have at the end of their senior year. Their students have expressed quite a bit of wonder and enhanced respect for the major when they discern the nature and breadth of the study area upon which they have embarked. Faculty have been able to assess the readiness of their new majors across several academic years by using this design. Further, when the program assesses their graduating seniors during their final semester, this pre-test data has provided a meaningful frame of reference for interpretation of program outcomes.

Other programs have embedded assessment methods in what are referred to as keystone courses. This type of curricular formation involves a set of common core courses that are required by all majors. This core is frequently seen with academic majors that offer separate concentrations within the major. For example, all students in JMU's Psychology undergraduate major must take a series of three courses: Psyc 101, 210, and then 211. The Psychology 211 course is a keystone course, because it marks the last course in a required series. Assessment activities in this course ensure that all students have had several prerequisite educational experiences and are declared Psychology majors. Assessment of student knowledge and competence at this point ensures that all students have acquired the necessary skills considered prerequisite for advanced academic standing.

Collecting data from students after this keystone course can provide programs with significant opportunities to assess the quality of their core courses and compare the quality of their majors over time. Another frequently used assessment point is the capstone course. Many programs provide students with curricular designs or course concentrations that culminate in a final integrating course, known as a capstone. These final course requirements can include student research experiences, laboratory tasks, term papers, performance recitals, or seminar activities through which students demonstrate many of the most important program goals and objectives. Capstone courses therefore provide a natural home for assessment activities.

Method Identification

When program faculty have arrived at clear ideas of what the goals and objectives of the program are and where students learn and practice the skills and competencies, they can begin to identify the methods most appropriate for assessing student learning and development. As stated earlier, well-written goals and objectives tend to clarify which assessment methods are best for assessment use. Strong, mature assessment programs are characterized by multiple methods of assessment. They do not rely on one single assessment test to provide them the information they need about their many program goals and objectives. Newer programs, with little assessment experience, often begin the process with multiple choice knowledge tests. Some programs find that there are methods available that can meet their needs, such as the ETS Major Field Achievement Tests (MFAT) or there may be tests that have been developed by a national disciplinary association, such as the American Chemistry Society or the National League of Nursing. However, many disciplines have a strong tradition of performance assessment in which recitals, dance, demonstrations, or portfolios are reviewed. Some objectives seem to be more amenable to assessment with multiple-choice examinations and others are best evaluated with an actual performance or product review. At this stage of design, identification and selection of the best methods for each of the program objectives is conducted. The actual selection or design of the instrument to use comes later. What is currently available on the market place should not influence the specification of program goals and objectives or the selection of what method is best.

Method Selection

CARS faculty assist faculty with the selection and development of all assessment methods to assure that the methods used for program or student review are sufficient to the task, as we are concerned about the adequacy of measurement. The purpose of our assessment process is to provide information to facilitate program improvement. We work with faculty to achieve sufficient reliability and validity of assessment methods, as it is essential to achieve a high standard of measurement quality to allow for confident inferences and actions based on these methods. For faculty interested in commercially available instruments, we assist them by requesting the test documentation and by reviewing the psychometric properties of the instruments. We then discuss and describe this information with the faculty to help them decide if the test can meet their needs. Faculty members are encouraged to carefully review items that comprise an instrument to see if it covers their program goals and objectives. By creating a table, like the one below, that lists the goals and objectives of the program, faculty can map the individual test items back to their program goals to assure adequate coverage. This also makes it possible to see that perhaps supplementing a commercial test with a set of carefully designed items can enhance the coverage of the goals and objectives of the program.

Items Items to assess objectives

Number of items:
Percent of items:



Method Construction, Pilot, and Refinement

We often find that commercially available instruments are not appropriate for assessment of our programs. In fact, our faculty members in collaboration with CARS faculty have developed over 90% of the instruments used for assessment at JMU. By creating our own instruments, we can tailor them specifically to the goals and objectives of each program. We can also pilot and revise the instruments to assure they have sufficient reliability and validity to meet our needs. As we modify our program goals and objectives or instructional delivery, we can revise our instruments. Being able to develop and modify our own assessment instruments helps us to maintain the flexibility we need to have vigorous programs that can respond effectively and efficiently to changing demands and developments. Fundamental to all development is the fidelity of the assessment methods and techniques to the program's goals and objectives.

Maintenance of Assessment Practice

Once the assessment design has been developed, implemented, and refined, the maintenance of practice must be addressed. There are many components of this maintenance procedure that we assist JMU with. For example, we archive program methods, instruments, and data. We assist in data analysis and in the interpretation of results. Many of the results have lead to meaningful research question about assessment practice, in general, and student motivation, in particular.

We are concerned with the vitality of assessment practice. It is our goal that the level of assessment practice at our University represents the best our profession has to offer. Engagement in assessment represents new opportunities for scholarly inquiry. Many of our faculty members have found that assessment provides new channels for professional development and research. There is a growing list of assessment-related books, chapters, and journal articles that have been published by James Madison faculty members and an even longer list of scholarly presentations. We are committed to sustaining the vitality of assessment practice.



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