Is Higher Ed Learning Assessment a Waste of Time?

By Ross Markle

Any low quality student learning outcome assessment process that lacks rigor and oversight deserves its fair share of criticism. When looking at such a process, critics ask, “Why continue a process that expends institutional resources while producing little value to the school, its faculty, and, in the end, their students?” The answer is not to simply kick these programs to the curb, but rather to learn from the high quality assessment systems that exist at many colleges and universities.

Higher education institutions have enough pressures to contend with and their student learning outcomes assessment processes shouldn’t be another hindrance toward institutional progress and improvement.

Ineffective assessment creates tension within institutions and impels dissenters to vocalize why the process should be completely done away with.

One such position posits that assessment fails to meet the criteria of quality research. As someone who has devoted a good portion of his career to applying the scientific method to the assessment of student learning in higher education, I feel this argument misrepresents assessment as an entirely fruitless endeavor, and ignores a large body of quality assessment programs currently in place in colleges and universities across the country.

While I would agree that low-quality assessment processes inhibit the ability of colleges and universities to gain meaningful understanding of teaching and learning, this is not the status quo. While some programs are still developing and could benefit by learning from these models, dismissing all assessment as low quality or lacking rigor is letting a few bad apples spoil the bunch.

Viewing assessment as an external, “research” process and not part of standard educational practice, could seriously hamper the use of assessment results to inform teaching and learning. At many institutions, assessment at the course, program and/or institutional level is considered a normal component of the education process. Institutions such as James Madison University and Alverno College have developed nationally recognized institutional assessment models. The use of assessment at these institutions demonstrates how it can facilitate a cultural shift to a focus and function emphasizing student learning.

In addition to a cultural shift, there are also important logistic factors of assessment that demonstrate rigorous methods of investigation. Programs like those that have won awards from the Council for Higher Education Accreditation or the assessment programs featured in case studies by the National Institute of Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) are only some of the examples of effective and rigorous programs informing improvements where needed.

When working with institutions on their assessment plans, my colleagues and I directly refer to the scientific method as the guiding principle for gathering information about student learning. We treat student learning outcomes as hypotheses, experimental design as the paradigm for gathering and analyzing data, and the continued iteration of the scientific method as a demonstration of the use of results.

Individuals, such as Natasha Jankowski, Peter Ewell and Stan Ikenberry, have worked tirelessly to support institutions as they seek to better understand what and how their students learn. T. Dary Erwin and Donna Sundre at James Madison University have built successful institutional cultures of assessment. As Joan Hawthorne from the University of South Dakota wrote on this topic, the student learning outcomes movement and the work of these leaders has increased the prevalence and centrality of student learning and student success in campus conversations.

Assessment is a process, not a thing. Assessment is not just the test or rubric we use to measure student learning, but it’s the system by which we use the results of that measurement to guide changes in our instruction, structures and support for students. Assessment is cyclical. After each iteration, we learn more and more about how to assess student learning, in addition to the learning itself.

To categorize all assessment in such a negative light ignores the good work of good people who are striving to guide improvements in higher education. Such criticisms, in my eyes, are a far greater waste of time.