What techniques should we use to assess our students' learning?
Assessments may be carried out in many different ways, depending upon the depth of information and nature of what is being assessed. The assessment methods may be categorized into both direct and indirect assessments.
Direct assessment methods
Direct assessment methods are "direct" because they look at actual student work to determine whether the students have learned what the faculty want them to learn. Among the direct methods most commonly used are the following:
Student portfolios may be collected from the time that students enter a program until they graduate or may be collected for narrower time frames. Students are responsible for gathering the information that the faculty want them to gather. Among the types of materials contained in a portfolio may be: research papers, essays, drafts of written material leading to a final product, laboratory research, videotapes of performances, exhibits of creative work, and examinations. A particularly valuable component of student portfolios is the reflective essay, in which the student reflects back upon her or his growth in scholarship or creative efforts and draws conclusions about his or her strengths and weaknesses at the time the portfolio is compiled. To save valuable space, many portfolios are now gathered electronically. The primary drawback of the portfolio is that it takes time for faculty to review. The primary advantage is that it can be designed to represent a broad view of student academic development, one that also contains some depth.
Embedded assessments make use of student work produced in specific classes. As a result, the students do not even need to know that their work is being used for assessment purposes. In addition, the material used for assessment is produced within the normal workload of both faculty and students. As such, embedded assessments provide a realistic source of information about student work. In departments that use examinations to evaluate students, sometimes only a few of the examination items are actually designed for assessment purposes. The data provided by embedded assessments should be reviewed by faculty beyond the course instructor, perhaps using a rubric of key characteristics to guide the assessments. The instructor uses the student work to provide grades. The faculty examine the student work to understand what and how students are learning in the program.
Capstone experiences or senior projects
Capstone experiences most often occur in courses taken by students toward the end of their academic program, typically in the senior year. Capstone courses can be designed to require students to demonstrate their accumulated knowledge, skills, and/or values through major creative or research projects, as well as written and oral presentations. The major advantage to the capstone course or experience is that it provides a focused event upon which the assessment can be based. As with embedded assessments, capstone courses make use of data that students produce within the normal course of their work. One caution is that, while the faculty member teaching the course is responsible for giving grades to students, other program faculty should be involved in evaluating the work of the students from an assessment perspective. A drawback to the capstone course is that it cannot hope to encapsulate everything that a student has learned, but assignments can be designed to elicit student work that does include much of what they have learned.
Examinations or standardized tests external to the courses
Culminating examinations may be constructed by the faculty or purchased from national testing organizations (such as the ACT CAAP, ETS field exams, or the Missouri BASE). Constructing such examinations is time-consuming, and standardized national measures may not correlate with your academic program. They are costly to either the institution or the student. And, unless they are required for graduation, student motivation to do well in them may be low.
Internships and other field experiences
Internships and field experiences provide opportunities for students to apply their learning outside the classroom. Evaluations of student work in such experiences may provide valuable information on whether the students are able to use what they have learned in class when they are confronted with "real world" situations. They may, in fact, be the capstone experience for the students' program.
Indirect assessment methods
Indirect assessment methods require that faculty infer actual student abilities, knowledge, and values rather than observe them through direct methods. Among indirect methods are:
Student surveys or surveys of employers and others provide impressions from survey respondents. These impressions may change over time (for example, will a senior value the same thing as an alumnus who has been working for several years?). Respondents may respond with what they think those conducting the survey want to hear, rather than what they truly believe. Surveys are easy to administer, but often do not result in responses from everyone surveyed. They may, however, provide clues to what should be assessed directly. And they may be the only way to gather information from alumni, employers, or graduate school faculty.
Exit interviews and focus groups
Exit interviews and focus groups allow faculty to ask specific questions face-to-face with students. Their limitations are that the students may not respond honestly or fully, while their answers may be, as with surveys, impressions that may change over time. Often, for more objectivity, it may be best to have someone outside the actual program faculty conduct the interviews. Interviews and focus groups may provide clues to what should be assessed directly.
Inventories of syllabi and assignments
Inventories of syllabi and assignments may turn up information about the curriculum that is not evident until the actual inventory is conducted. As an indirect technique, the inventory does not indicate what students have learned, but it does provide a quick way of knowing whether some courses are redundant in what they teach or whether some gap in the curriculum exists. It is a valuable tool within the total assessment assemblage of tools.