Assessment Mythbusters

Mythbusters: Common Misconceptions Regarding Assessment

Prepared by the Office for Curriculum, Assessment, and Accreditation in collaboration with the
University Senate Student Learning Outcomes and Program Assessment Committee

One of the ironies of higher education is that many faculty have had little formal training or professional development in educational assessment, yet our collective efforts are increasingly being viewed through an assessment-centered lens by various stakeholders (e.g., students, parents, employers, donors, and accrediting agencies). This irony has led to the origin and persistence of a number of myths about assessment among faculty. Some of the more frequently-heard myths are addressed below.

Myth: Can’t you just tell us what we need to do? – The foundation of assessment is based on inquiry into how well we are cultivating students’ learning and development. Only you and your colleagues can determine what your program and its degrees aims to accomplish, what your students should be able to do, and how best your students are able to demonstrate their capacities through the process of earning their degrees.

Myth: I do assessment. I give grades! – This claim may reflect a conflation between the general grading process and the key articulation, evaluation, and reflect on expectations about the student achievement of specific Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs). Consider the following scenario:

In their recent course, confident Chris earned a C+ while Studious Selena earned a D+. Based on the weights assigned to course components, the two students clearly earned the grades they received. However, did Chris necessarily demonstrate more learning than Selena? What if the evidence demonstrated that Chris simply paid much more attention to details in homework assignments? And what if Selena showed superior performance on exams that directly measured achievement of the CLOs? In this scenario, one could argue that Selena demonstrated a greater achievement of the CLOs than Chris, but simple inspection of the course grades could readily mask this reality.

Fortunately, various strategies exist wherein an instructor can develop and integrate scoring rubrics within assignments that simultaneously clarify instructor expectations, provide meaningful assessment findings, inform necessary grade determinations aligned with specific CLOs, and provide insights into how to improve student learning. 

Myth: Course Assessment is the same as Degree Assessment – Degree assessment efforts often transcend individual course assessment, although the two are clearly related as degrees remain largely defined by course requirements. In other words, Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs) identify abilities that students are expected to achieve within a given course, while Degree Learning Outcomes (DLOs) identify abilities students are expected to achieve through the broader degree experience. Thus, a single course is not expected to build the capacity to achieve all DLOs – if this were possible, the integrity, value, and need for the broader degree would be highly questionable! However, the developing capacity to eventually achieve a given DLO can certainly be assessed through CLOs and their related student course.

Myth: How can you ask us to assess all assignments for all students in all courses every semester? This is ridiculous! – Yes, that is ridiculous, and is not what is being asked. Assessment at both the course and degree level involves a blend of intentional planning, effort, and action over time to progressively improve student learning and demonstrate degree integrity. Thus, program faculty are encouraged to collectively discuss where they are, establish where they need to go, and work together to move in that direction in a sustainable and mindful manner. In Mary Senter’s (2001) view, “The critical thing about assessment is the conversation among faculty it invokes. The data may be the spur to the conversation, but the conversation [and the action that results] is the critical thing.

Myth: Academic freedom gives me the right to ignore assessment – Academic freedom is a central and cherished tenet of higher education, but not a shield from assessment or broader educational responsibility. Instead, with respect to teaching, academic freedom allows faculty the opportunity to explore how they provide opportunities for their students to learn and how they design effective evaluations to ascertain that learning; it does not protect faculty who ignore their educational responsibilities. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) directly address academic freedom and educational responsibility in their Statement on Academic Freedom and Educational Responsibility (2006):

“There is, however, an additional dimension of academic freedom that was not well developed in the original principles[1], and that has to do with the responsibilities of faculty members for educational programs. Faculty are responsible for establishing goals for student learning, for designing and implementing programs of general education and specialized study that intentionally cultivate the intended learning, and for assessing students’ achievement. In these matters, faculty must work collaboratively with their colleagues in their departments, schools, and institutions as well as with relevant administrators. Academic freedom is necessary not just so faculty members can conduct their individual research and teach their own courses, but so they can enable students – through whole college programs of study – to acquire the learning they need to contribute to society.”

In closing, below is a “myth-to-reality table” for some statements starting with “Assessment is . . .”:

Often construed as: When fully realized is:
… something to finish just before the final deadline. … an ongoing inquiry-driven process that is shared regularly with various stakeholders so decisions to improve student success can be made.
… that person’s job. … a process involving all faculty through a collaborative, productive, and intentional commitment to improving student learning and degree integrity.
 … not important.  … vital for programs to provide evidence of needed improvement and to demonstrate educational responsibilities by being responsive to student, work-force, and broader societal needs.
 … imposed by accrediting agencies.  … an evidence-based means to demonstrate degree value 
 … additional work.  … a core component of good pedagogy, a natural by product of innate intellectual curiosity, and reflective of a growth mindset.
 … not a rational investment towards tenure and promotion.  … a powerful means to demonstrate a commitment to teaching effectiveness with a focus on evidence of student learning versus offering simple declarations of intent or assertions of success. In addition, the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is increasingly recognized as a disciplinary endeavor with external funding and peer-reviewed publications that may be as readily aligned with professional development as with teaching effectiveness.

[1] “original principles” refers to the Statement of Principles on Academic Freedom and Tenure (1940), which can be accessed through the open-access digital “Redbook” at http://www.aaup.org/reports-publications/publications/redbook.