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Determining Your Purpose for Assessing Student Learning

Tomorrow's Teaching and Learning

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College teachers are being asked to provide evidence of what and how well students in their courses are learning to a variety of institutional and external stakeholders.


The posting below looks at various learning assessment functions..  It is from Chapter 2 – Determining Your Purpose for Assessing Student Learning in the book Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Elizabeth F. Barkley and Claire Howell Major. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco. Copyright © 2016 John Wiley & Sons, Inc., A Wiley Company. One Montgomery Street, Suite 1200. San Francisco, CA 94104-4594 All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.


Rick Reis
UP NEXT: Inclusive Teaching

Tomorrow’s Teaching and Learning

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Determining Your Purpose for Assessing Student Learning

College teachers’ lives are full of responsibilities, and we often find ourselves trying to be efficient in our efforts. The information we gather from students about their learning can serve myriad purposes, including to determine for ourselves how well students are learning, to provide learners with feedback on their progress, to improve our profession through the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL), and to provide information to institutional and external stakeholders. In this section, we provide information on the following areas:

2.1. Defining Assessment
2.2. How Learning Assessment is Different from Grading
2.3. Types of Learning Assessment
2.4. Assessing Students to Determine for Ourselves How Well Students Are Learning
2.5. Assessing to Give Learners Feedback on Their Progress
2.6. Assessing to Improve Our Profession through the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)
2.7. Assessing to Provide Information to Institutional and External Stakeholders on How Well Students Are Learning
2.8. Crafting the Assessment Question

2.1. Defining Assessment

At its most fundamental level, assessment is the action of appraising the quality of something or someone. Within the context of education, the term assessment is used to describe appraisal of the knowledge, skills, attitudes, and beliefs that students have acquired, most often as the result of learning in their courses. Most definitions of assessment for educational purposes tend to stress that assessment is a process that involves goal setting and evidence gathering and this may occur at a number of levels: a system, an institution, a college, a department, or a program. In this book, when we use the term learning assessment, we are talking about assessment of student learning that happens at the course level. Thus when we say learning assessment, we mean the actions undertaken by teachers and by students to document student learning in a given course.

Table 2.1. Differences Between Grades and Assessment

Grades …                                                                      Assessment …
Focus on an individual student                                      Focuses on a cohort of students
Are letters that are indirect, symbolic representations   Attempts to pinpoint more precisely what

May reflect class management goals related to             Emphasizes only achievement of specified
student behavior that are separate from learning,         learning goals
such as attendance, participation, and on-time
submission of assignments

May be the result of vague or inconsistent standards   Aims for exactness

Reflect student performance in individual courses       May measure learning from ungraded co-curricular activities or look for skill
or coourse assignments                                               development beyond course content, such as critical thinking

Source: Suskie (2009)

2.2. How Learning Assessment is Different from Grading

College teachers have been providing feedback to students through graded assignments, activities, and tests for centuries. Is there a difference between graded assignments and assessment? For assessment specialists, there is. Essentially the grades we give are symbols of relative achievement in a class section. In an institution where twenty teachers may be teaching separate sections of English 1A, for example, each section will represent its own blend of a single teacher’s pedagogy and that section’s unique array of student abilities. Assessment specialists propose that the fundamental purpose of assessment is to determine how effective a course’s assignments and tests are in fostering specific learning goals in order to understand and improve student learning. Additional differences between the two are identified in Table 2.1.

2.3. Types of Learning Assessment

There are many different types of learning assessment, and the result can be a bewildering terminology muddle. The different types may refer to the purpose of assessment, the timing of the collection of data, the type of measurement, or the form of appraisal. We believe that these distinctions are interesting in theory, but for most of us who are teaching, assessment is not typically an either/or practice. Thus our concept of learning assessment is not centered on any one of these types, but rather is a broad conceptualization of how to assess student learning outcomes (SLOs) at the course level. That said, we find three types of assessment particularly useful as concepts for understanding Learning Assessment Techniques (LATs):

1. Educative assessment is a term developed by Grant Wiggins to describe a process in which assessment is designed to help improve student performance rather than just “audit” it. While LATs can be used for both purposes, we strive to emphasize the educative aspect because our primary purpose in LATs is to improve learning.

2. Embedded assessment occurs within the class as an assignment linked to learning outcomes, thus achieving both grading and assessment purposes. All LATs are embedded assessments.

3. Authentic assessment simulates a real-world experience by evaluating ability to apply knowledge or perform tasks under conditions that approximate those found outside of the classroom. Wherever possible, we have attempted to create LATs that reflect the principles of authentic assessment.

2.4. Assessing Students to Determine for Ourselves How Well Students Are Learning

Many of us are interested in assessing students simply to determine for ourselves whether students are learning, for reasons that may include the following:

1. To discover the current status of student knowledge and understanding: Many teachers believe it is important to identify students’ prior knowledge in order to determine appropriate starting points for instruction. In addition, an important principle in learning and motivation is to work at a level that is appropriately challenging: learning activities that are too easy are boring, while ones that are too hard are discouraging. Assessing where students are as the course progresses also helps teachers identify struggling students who need additional work, as well as those who may benefit from more challenging, advanced tasks. Certainly at the end of the course or a unit of study, we want to know if students have indeed learned what we attempted to teach them. Assessing students’ current status of knowledge and understanding, therefore, provides us with important information at multiple points throughout the course.
2. To solve a problem in our teaching: At times we become aware of problems in our courses. Students may be paying too much attention to their phones, tablets, or laptops. They may not participate in discussions or do their homework. They may not demonstrate as much critical thinking as we would like. Conducting assessment can provide us with data about the reasons these problems are occurring, which in turn may point to potential solutions.
3. To determine whether we need to change direction in our teaching: Perhaps we have started down a path in teaching and are uncertain whether our approach is working. We may be lecturing and wondering whether students are understanding the information, or using collaborative groups and wondering if all students are participating. Conducting assessment can help us answer questions about whether our pedagogical choices are effective so that, if necessary, we can make changes in our approach.
4. To find out how students are experiencing learning in our classrooms: While many of us conduct assessment for the primary purpose of determining whether students are learning what they should and could, there are times that we want to know how students are experiencing the learning activities or classroom environment. Indeed, because course climate can influence learning itself (not to mention student evaluations), it can be quite useful to collect information about student experience as well as information on learning itself.

2.5.   Assessing to Give Learners Feedback on Their Progress

Imagine trying to learn something with only a vague sense of what you are supposed to learn and then not getting any feedback on how you are progressing. Your improvement would be haphazard, the process would be frustrating, and in the end you might even find you had learned nothing at all. Even worse, you might realize that what you had learned, you had learned wrong. To learn efficiently and effectively, learners need to know what they are supposed to learn as well as know what they need to be able to do to demonstrate that they have learned. They also need to receive rich, timely, individual relevant feedback throughout their learning efforts so that they can make necessary adjustments before it is too late. Thus an important use of assessment results is to provide constructive information to students.

2.6.   Assessing Learning to Improve Our Profession through the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SoTL)

In 1990, Ernest Boyer, the president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, made popular the term “the scholarship of teaching” in his now classic text Scholarship Reconsidered.  This notion eventually was expanded to “the scholarship of teaching and learning.” SoTL is scholarly inquiry into student learning. It aims to improve teaching and learning as it also addresses a vision for an appropriate balance between research and teaching and about how to evaluate and reward good teaching. As described by Huber and Hutchings, SoTL is “viewing the work of the classroom as a site for inquiry, asking and answering questions about students’ learning in ways that can improve one’s own classroom and also advance the larger profession of teaching” (2005, p. 1).

Today, a number of journals and conferences accept articles related to college teaching. At the International Society for the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning’s 11th annual international conference in Quebec City, Canada, approximately 500 scholars of teaching and learning from around the world met to share their inquiries, perspectives, and research on issues related to “nurturing creativity and passion in teaching and learning” (, accessed 11-17-14). Those of us who pursue SoTL work can use assessment to provide the kind of evidence required to improve our profession through our individual contributions to the scholarship of teaching and learning.

2.7.   Assessing to Provide Information to Institutional and External Stakeholders on How Well Students Are Learning

College teachers are being asked to provide evidence of what and how well students in their courses are learning to a variety of institutional and external stakeholders. We therefore can use results to provide evidence of the effectiveness of our teaching or the quality of student learning:

1. As part of our professional dossiers: Most of us have to provide evidence of our effectiveness as teachers, and this information is typically acquired through traditional student evaluations or ratings of courses. We want these student evaluations to be good, not only to reassure ourselves that we are doing our jobs well, but because these evaluations have a high correlation to departmental chair evaluations, which in turn influence decisions that affect our professional careers. Student evaluations, however, do not always provide rich, substantive information. In addition, institutions are increasingly adopting electronic rating forms, which tend to have lower response rates. Department chairs and tenure evaluation committees have a difficult time conducting fair, thorough evaluations of teaching when there are low student response rates. Assessment can help us provide a more complete picture of our teaching effectiveness that we can use for our professional dossiers, whether for hiring, promotion, tenure, or merit review.

2. For program reviews, whether internal or external: Most programs must go through some sort of formal review, whether by an external disciplinary association such as Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET) or National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education (NCATE), or through an internal review process such as one that might be used for their institution’s budget and resource allocation. A normal part of these reviews is the documentation that students have met predetermined learning outcomes.
3. To institutional assessment efforts and accrediting agencies: Pressures on institutions of higher education for assessment of learning continue to increase. Also, accreditation agencies are assuming more of the responsibility for stimulating and monitoring assessment. Thus we can use the data we gather to report on student learning both to our institutions and to accrediting agencies.

2.8.  Crafting the Assessment Question

As you prepare to select and then implement a LAT, it is important to know, What is the question you are asking about student learning? Here are some examples of the kinds of questions you might consider.

1. To what extent has the learning been successful? That is, how well can students demonstrate accomplishment of the learning outcome? You typically can answer this question by looking at the final learning product, the assessable Learning Artifact. Based on your evaluation of this product, you should be able to determine achievement of the outcome for both individuals and the class as a whole.

2. Has there been cognitive or affective change in students over time? This question may be answered by giving students a pretest, offering instruction, and then giving a posttest. The change that occurs between the pretest and posttest is considered to represent the change in learning over time. Many of the LATs we have described are useful as pretest and postassessment measures of change in learner knowledge and skills. Certainly the change that is documented may have occurred due to factors other than just the course activities; for example, students could gain knowledge on their own through informal learning. In higher education settings, however, it typically is not practical or possible to control for these external factors. Therefore, it often is sufficient to simply document that change has happened and thus not necessary to go into high-level research methods to prove that the improvement was a direct result of the course.

3. How do these results compare with others? It may be informative to analyze how the results compare to data gathered for other groups. Examples of these groups include students in the same course that you taught in other academic terms, students in the same or similar courses taught by other teachers, and subgroups of students differentiated by characteristics such as academic major, student level (such as freshman), prior background, and so forth.