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Academic Affairs Office

Assessment Primer

What is Assessment?

Faculty sometimes say that they are already doing assessment by giving students tests.  Test data can certainly be useful in assessment. However, assessment is more than tests – it relates to what the students know and can do at the end of a course or upon graduation.  Specifically whether or not students attain a set of learning outcomes (i.e., what faculty want students to know or be able to do as a result of taking a class or competing a curriculum).  Learning outcomes can be formulated for application at several levels. At the classroom level, a learning outcome might focus on a very specific skill (e.g., students will have the ability to identify common minerals), at the department/program or institute level they are typically broader (e.g., students will identify and use the appropriate technique(s) to evaluate field samples).  An important characteristic of a good learning outcome is that it is something that can be easily measured. 

Assessment should take place at multiple levels within an institution, including:

  1. Classroom assessment in which instructors determine whether students are achieving the learning outcomes for the course.
  2. Department/Program assessment in which faculty determine whether their department curriculum is teaching students the material and skills necessary to meet the department learning outcomes. Departments/Programs that contribute to the general education core curriculum also do a separate assessment of those classes to see if they are fulfilling the needs of students across the curriculum. 
  3. Co-curricular assessment, in which non-academic offices/programs (e.g., student services, residential life, physical recreation) assess their progress in helping students to achieve learning outcomes.
  4. Institute assessment, in which we attempt to determine whether students are meeting the learning outcomes that apply to the entire campus.  At this time, NMT has chosen not to pursue this particular optional assessment activity.  

Why is it Valuable?

There are several reasons that assessment is a valuable endeavor.

  1. Classroom assessment provides instructors with feedback on the actual results of instruction.  Tests can be a valuable part of classroom assessment by relating specific test questions to class learning outcomes.  However, effective classroom assessment should also involve periodic assessments, which can include simple, non-graded activities such as asking students to quickly write down on a piece of paper the portion of a lecture that they found most difficult to follow, briefly explain a computational method, or demonstrate an experimental technique.  If many students indicate they are having difficulty with a particular concept related to a learning outcome, you can spend more time on it in the next lecture, rather than waiting for the final exam to find out that they had trouble with it.
  2. Department assessment helps faculty focus on the skills and knowledge they want their graduates to have, and to determine how well they are doing at achieving these goals.  The process of formulating department-level learning outcomes, and determining which classes contribute to those outcomes is very useful in its own right. Is some class material not contributing to achieving the learning outcomes?  Perhaps the material is being taught because such classes traditionally cover this material, but if a concrete reason for including the material does not readily come to mind, more useful content could probably be substituted for it.  In essence, just planning for department-level assessment is valuable in that it encourages faculty to focus on more than their specific courses, but rather to think in terms of the broad goals they have for their students upon graduation.  
  3. Co-curricular assessment helps non-academic offices to focus on how their activities impact student learning on campus.  Students engage in a wide variety of activities related to these programs that enhance and reinforce formal academic instruction.  For example, our Office of Student Affairs has hosted a variety of activities that help students to appreciate diverse cultures and ethic diversity.  Co-curricular activities have also been demonstrated to increase student engagement and have a major impact on student mental and physical health, which obviously help with their performance on a wide variety of outcomes.

Assessment Workflow 

Regardless of assessment level, the workflow is always the same:

  1. Define learning outcomes – the knowledge/skills you want the students to have. 
  2. Formulate an assessment methodology – how you will measure student performance on an outcome.
  3. Identify a benchmark or target you would like the student population to reach (e.g., 80% of students will demonstrate mastery of a skill).
  4. Evaluate how students are doing on the outcomes. 
  5. Determine what actions, if any, should be taken to improve student performance. This item is critical because without it the assessment exercise is ultimately worthless. 

Assessment Reports  

To view assessment reports, forms, and templates, visit the reports page, or request copies of the reports from Michael Jackson.

Further Reading

Angelo, T.A., and Cross, K.P, 1993, Classroom assessment techniques (2nd ed.), Josset-Bass, 427 pp., ISBN 1-55542-500-3.

Driscoll, A. and Wood, S., 2007, Outcomes-based assessment for learner-centered education, Stylus, 275 pp., ISBN 1-57922-195-9.