Academic Assessment FAQ

Why can’t we use course grades or course evaluations to assess student learning?
Course evaluations can be a measure of student satisfaction and can effectively report classroom experiences, exposure to ideas, and activities. They can even provide a sense of what students learned. However, for all of their benefits, course evaluations do not count as direct assessment because they do not demonstrate learning to the professor or another outside observer. 

Course grades do not usually count as assessments of student learning outcomes because they typically include components such as “participation,” “attendance,” and other elements that are not directly tied to student learning. Moreover, even when grades are tied directly to assignments (papers, exams, projects) they are often global. Knowing that ten students each got a B+ on a Dante paper does not mean they all demonstrably learned the same knowledge and skills. Thus, grades are often not specific enough to use as assessment measures. 

Is it ever possible to use grades to assess student learning?
Yes, if an assignment or exam addresses a learning outcome and excludes performance elements unrelated to the outcome one wishes to assess, grades can be used as assessment measures. For example, suppose a department chooses to use a paper to assess how well students understand the role of theory in explaining social and cultural phenomena.  If the grade for this paper was confined to components strictly related to the performance of this outcome, and excluded unrelated elements such as “syntax and writing mechanics,” it could be used as an assessment measure. Exam grades can serve as a clear proxy of demonstration of learning as long as the exam is geared to assess a specific outcome or outcomes.

How can assessment be meaningful if it is not held to the same standard as research?
Assessment and research are two entirely different things and should not be judged using the same standards. The purpose of assessment is to understand and improve student learning; the purpose of research is to generate new scholarly information. Assessment methods are driven by standard assessment procedures; research methods are driven by disciplinary or interdisciplinary best practices.

The caliber of assessment findings is determined by the use of vetted rubrics, multiple reviewers, and intra- and inter-disciplinary discussions; the caliber of research findings is determined by a peer review process leading to publication and/or presentation at conferences (and by the contribution of those findings to the field over time).

Assessment of learning in degree programs is not scholarly research (nor should it be), no more than the grading process is scholarly research. Grades are far more consequential to students than anything we do to assess program and institutional learning. Program assessment it is contextual. It is not supposed to be generalizable and then designed accordingly.