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The Center for the Enhancement of Learning, Teaching, and University Assessment

Assessment Basics


What is assessment?
Why should we conduct assessment?
How is assessment related to grading?
What are learning (developmental) outcomes?
What makes a good learning (developmental) outcome?
Is assessment the same as research?
I’m a busy person—how much time does it take to conduct assessment?
Who do I go to for help in conducting an assessment project?

What is assessment?

The systematic collection of information about student learning, using the time, knowledge, expertise, and resources available, in order to inform decisions about how to improve learning. [4]

Put more simply, assessment involves deciding what skills, knowledge, or values students should gain as a result of your course or program, collecting information to determine how well students develop these skills, and then using this information to modify the course/program in order to increase students’ learning and development.

Assessment is NOT about proving that students are doing well, or validating your skills as an educator.

Assessment IS about using systematically collected data in order to improve student learning and development.

Why should we conduct assessment? [3]

There are many benefits to conducting assessment.

Students benefit because:

  • Faculty expectations are clearly outlined, helping students to better meet these expectations.
  • Feedback from assessment provides students with information about their strenghts and weaknesses.
  • They have documentation of their skills, which can be used when applying for jobs or admission to graduate schools.

Faculty benefit because:

  • Conducting assessment helps faculty to see how different aspects of their course contribute to students' learning, or how different courses within a program contribute to students' overall success in the program.
  • Assessment results can be used to modify course and program design so that students better meet faculty expectations.
  • Assessment can be used as evidence of quality teaching for promotion or tenure decisions.

Administrators benefit because:

  • Assessment results can be used to document the success of a program or institution to external constituents, such as employers, donors, and legislators.
  • Assessment information can be used to ensure that institutional resources are being used in the most effective manner, and where they'll have the greatest impact on student learning.

Is assessment the same as grading? [1, 2, 3]

Yes and no. Course or assignment grades may be unsuitable for assessment for several reasons:

  • The grading and assessment criteria may differ
  • The grading standards may be vague or inconsistent
  • Grades alone may give insufficient information on student strengths and weaknesses
  • Grades do not reflect all learning experiences

However, when intentionally designed to do so, grades can be used for assessment. "Embedded assessments" are included in regular coursework or programs. For example, assessing students’ final papers in a course for evidence of critical thinking, or assessing lab reports to determine students’ demonstration of appropriate research design.

With careful planning, grades can be used for assessment purposes if:

  • The exam or assignment measures specific learning outcomes
  • The criteria for a grade are made explicit
  • The criteria are detail enough to determine students' strengths and weaknesses

However, some experts contend that grades cannot be used for assessment at a broader level, such as programmatic assessment. For an additional perspective on the place of grades in programmatic assessment, read the article " Do Grades Make the Grade for Program Assessment?" by Gloria Rogers.

What are learning (developmental) outcomes?

Learning (developmental) outcomes are specific statements that describe the skills, abilities, knowledge, or values that students should be able to do or demonstrate as a result of the course or program (e.g., “the student identifies and summarizes the problem or question at issue”).

What makes a good learning (developmental) outcome?

When designing learning (developmental) outcomes, the outcomes should be defined by action terms that are:

  • Measurable
  • Observable
  • Performed by the learner

(See the “Designing Learning (Developmental) Outcomes” page for additional suggestions.)

Is assessment the same as research?

Assessment is not typically considered to be research in the traditional sense. Research is often designed to test theories, while assessment is conducted in order to inform practice. However, some would consider assessment to be a form of "action research." [3]

Assessment can sometimes lack the rigor found in research. Assessing student learning on concepts such as critical thinking or appreciation of diversity can be difficult, and using an empirical research design may not be possible when working with students in a class or program (versus participants in a laboratory). However, assessment is can still be meangingful and useful.

Assessment is designed to inform practice, not to test theories. A well-designed assessment provides information about how well students are achieving the learning outcome, which can then be used to modify the course or program. Rather than attempting to create an empirically-based research study, focus on collecting information that can be used to modify your course or program design. For example, it is useful to know that students in your class demonstrate excellent writing skills but poor critical thinking skills, even if a lack of empirical design does not allow you to determine how their skills compare to other students' skills.

I’m a busy person—how much time does it take to conduct assessment?

Assessment is a continuous process that should be integrated with your teaching responsibilities, making it difficult to determine how much time assessment "takes." Because time is often a concern, consider using embedded assessments, which are integrated into regular coursework or programs. Rather than create new assignments for assessment purposes, use assignments that are already included in course syllabi. When grading these assignments, use rubrics to identify the specific criteria and outcomes that you are assessing.

For additional time-saving suggestions, contact one of the assessment staff members, and we would be happy to help you design assessment activities that fit with your schedule.

Who do I go to for help in conducting an assessment project?

There are multiple people at Miami University with the expertise to help with assessment. If you have general questions about assessment or any of the projects described on this website, you can reach us at:

Center for the Enhancement of Learning, Teaching, and University Assessment
317 Laws Hall
Miami University
Oxford, OH 45056


[1] Maki, P. L. (2004). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution. Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing, LLC.
[2] Rogers, G. (n.d.) Do grades make the grade for program assessment? Retrieved from
[3] Suskie, L. (2004). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing Company, Inc.
[4] Walvoord, B. E. (2004). Assessment clear and simple: A practical guide for institutions, departments, and general education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

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