What is Assessment? What isn't Assessment?
Share |

This purpose of this page is to describe the meaning of assessment. The other elements of assessment are reviewed in the web pages listed above. Click on each item above to learn more about assessment.


What is assessment?

  • Assessment has a variety of meanings in higher education. It includes “any activity designed to collect information on the success of a program, course, or University curriculum” in order to “improve institutional practices” (Stassen et al., 2001, p.5).

  • Program assessment “focuses on assessing student learning and experience to determine whether students have acquired the skills, knowledge, and competencies associated with their program of study” (Stassen et al., 2001, p.7).

Terenzini (1993) notes,


“Much of the heat generated by assessment emanates from some people's understandings of the purpose of assessment and the intentions of the individuals involved in it. In general, two distinct but not mutually exclusive views on the purposes of assessment dominate conversations and publications on the topic. The first view—and the one probably shared by most faculty members—sees assessment as an accountability device, a “quality control” vehicle concocted by others higher in the organizational food chain to ensure that work is being done well, with resource allocation decisions lying in wait just beyond the reach of the campfire's light. Faculty members holding this view may consider assessment professionally demeaning, a close relative of root canal work and to be avoided if at all possible. In short: assessment is a problem" (Terenzini, 1993, Introduction section, 4).

“From a second perspective, however, assessment offers a means for enhancing teaching and learning, a series of activities that will help us do better the things we believe are important. (We do believe that, don't we?) In this view, assessment is not so much a problem as an opportunity. You can guess which perspective I favor” (Terenzini, 1993, Introduction section, 5).


Assessment is best viewed as a process of self-examination, one that is on-going, developmental, and formative (Terenzini, 1993).

What isn’t assessment?


It is useful to reflect upon what assessment is not.  According to Terenzini (1993), it is not simply testing.


“Testing can certainly be (and usually is) a part of most assessment programs, but we must remember that assessment is much more than just testing. It is, as noted above, a process that involves reflection on purposes, discussion and specification of educational goals, development of indicators of the extent to which those goals are being achieved, and, based on the evidence, curricular and program modifications designed to increase the likelihood that students will learn what we want them to learn” (Terenzini, 1993, What Assessment is Not section, 2).


Here is a link to the American Association of Higher Education (AAHE)’s “9 Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning”.


Different Levels of Assessment.


As noted by Hutchings (2011), assessment at its heart is about goals. In particular, it is about “teaching towards goals that you and your colleagues have agreed upon” (p. 1). To this end , there are three typical levels of assessment: the institutional level, the program or department level, and the course level.


The National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment provides useful distinctions among these three levels.

  • At the institutional level, universities assess whether or not their students are graduating with the skills necessary to become productive members of society and their professions regardless of the major chosen. These skills can include the goals of critical thinking and writing; oral and written communication, and quantitative reasoning. University-wide learning goals can also include substantive knowledge across a wide variety of disciplines usually achieved through the completion of general education requirements.

  • At the program or department level, faculty develop the goals they wish their majors to achieve both in terms of knowledge and the practical skills. The outcomes here center around the question: what do out students need to know and be able to do to work in this particular profession or field?

  • At the course level, desired goals and outcomes for a specific course -- both in terms of knowledge and skills are set out , preferably as part of the course design process, and then assessed throughout the semester (Hutchings, 2011).


Glossary of Common Assessment Terms*


assessment - The systematic process of determining educational objectives, gathering, using, and analyzing information about student learning outcomes to make decisions about programs, individual student progress, or accountability.


benchmark - A criterion-referenced objective performance datum that is used for comparative purposes. A program can use its own data as a baseline benchmark against which to compare future performance. It can also use data from another program as a benchmark. In the latter case, the other program often is chosen because it is exemplary and its data are used as a target to strive for, rather than as a baseline.


direct assessment - Direct measures of student leaning require student to display their knowledge and skills as they respond to the instrument itself. Objective tests, essays, presentations, and classroom assignments all meet this criterion.


formative - An assessment which is used for improvement (individual or program level) rather than for making final decisions or for accountability.


indirect - Indirect methods such as surveys and interviews ask students to reflect on their learning rather than to demonstrate it.


longitudinal - Data collected on the same individuals over time for use in a longitudinal study. A study that investigates development, learning, or other types of change in individuals over time.


measurement - The systematic investigation of people's attributes.


norm - An interpretation of scores on a measure that focuses on the rank ordering of students - not their performance - in relation to criteria.


objectives - Refers to the specific knowledge, skills, or attitudes that students are expected to achieve through their college experience; expected or intended student outcomes.


outcomes - Refers to the specific knowledge, skills, or developmental attributes that students actually develop through their college experience; assessment results.


percentile - The percentage of examinees in the norm group who scored at or below the raw score for which the percentile rank was calculated.


performance-based - Assessment technique involving the gathering of data though systematic observation of a behavior or process and evaluating that data based on a clearly articulated set of performance criteria to serve as the basis for evaluative judgments.


qualitative - Data in which the values of a variable differ in kind (quality) rather than in amount.


quantitative - Data in which the values of a variable differ in amount rather than in kind.


rubric - A scoring tool that lists the criteria for a piece of work, or "what counts" (for example, purpose, organization, and mechanics are often what count in a piece of writing); it also articulates gradations of quality for each criterion, from excellent to poor.


summative - A sum total or final product measure of achievement at the end of an instructional unit or course of study.


triangulation - The building of multiple sources of information or ideas to support a central finding or theme.


value-added - The effects educational providers have had on students during their programs of study. The impact of participating in higher education on student learning and development above that which would have occurred through natural maturation, usually measured as longitudinal change or difference between pretest and posttest; A comparison of the knowledge, skills, and developmental traits that students bring to the educational process with the knowledge, skills and developmental traits they demonstrate upon completion of the educational process.


*Source: James Madison University's Online Dictionary of Student Outcome Assessment, http://people.jmu.edu/yangsx/.




Hutchings, P. (2011). What new faculty need to know about assessment. (NILOA Assessment Brief). Urbana, Il: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes and Assessment. Retrieved from www.learningoutcomesassessment.org/assessmentbriefs.htm


Stassen, M., Doherty, K., & Poe, M. (2001). Program-based review and assessment: Tools and techniques for program improvement. Office of Academic Planning and Assessment (OAPA), University of Massachusetts, Amherst.  Retrieved from http://www.umass.edu/oapa/oapa/publications/online_handbooks/program_based.pdf


Terenzini, P.T. (1993, Spring).  Assessment: What it is and what it isn’t [Electronic version].  ADE Bulletin, 104, 14-17. Retrieved from  http://web2.ade.org/ade/bulletin/n104/104014.htm


Additional Sources of Interest


Bain, K. (2004). What the best college teachers do. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.


Banta, T.W., Jones, E.A., and Black, K.E. (2009). Designing effective assessment: Principles and profiles of good practice. Hoboken, NJ: Jossey-Bass.


Cain, T.R. (2014 November). Assessment and academic freedom: In concert, not conflict. (NILOA Occasional Paper No. 22). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indianan University National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Retrieved from www.learningoutcomesassessment.org/occasionalpapertwentytwo.htm


Carnegie Mellon University Eberly Center for Teaching Excellence. http://www.eberly.cmu.edu/


Hutchings, P. (2010 April). Opening doors to faculty involvement in assessment. (NILOA Occasional Paper No. 4). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indianan University National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Retrieved from www.learningoutcomesassessment.org/occasionalpaperfour.htm