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Skidmore College
Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment at Skidmore College

What is "Academic Assessment"?

Tom Angelo once summarized it this way: "Assessment is an ongoing process aimed at understanding and improving student learning. It involves making our expectations explicit and public; setting appropriate criteria and high standards for learning quality; systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well performance matches those expectations and standards; and using the resulting information to document, explain, and improve performance. When it is embedded effectively within larger institutional systems, assessment can help us focus our collective attention, examine our assumptions, and create a shared academic culture dedicated to assuring and improving the quality of higher education."

What do we really want to know about our students? The questions you ask will vary from program to program, whether they deal with students learning specific content, skills or attitudes or perhaps issues of student motivation and ability to monitor their own learning. Our assumption is that the key assessment questions are best known by the program faculty themselves, for they are the ones who encounter students on a daily basis, whether in their classes or outside. But finding ways to answer these questions is key to our success.

Academic assessment seeks to answer the broad question, "What and how well do our students learn what we are attempting to teach them?" As such, academic assessment is not designed to evaluate individual faculty or even individual courses. It is designed to evaluate individual programs as a whole, such as academic majors or interdisciplinary programs, and to determine where the programs might be strengthened in order to improve our students' abilities to learn. The primary audience for academic assessments is not administrators or accrediting agencies, but, rather, the program faculty themselves.

An assessment program is essentially a way of formalizing the informal discussions, concerns, and questions that faculty have always had about their classes and their students, whether in the hallways, their offices, department meetings, or social gatherings.

Academic assessments work best when they are designed and carried out by the academic faculty themselves, supported by appropriate support units in the College, such as Institutional Research and the Director of Assessment. Therefore, it is essential that all faculty in our programs ask themselves such key questions as, "What should a graduate of our program know, be able to do, and/or value?" and "How do our courses provide students with opportunities to develop their knowledge, skills, and values?" The answers to such questions provide the basis for assessing the program.

In addition to assessments that become part of the fabric of each academic department, the institution assesses student learning in institution-wide contexts. For example, is the core curriculum accomplishing all that we want it to accomplish? Are residential life programs supportive of academic learning? What are the roles of extracurricular activities such as athletics, clubs, and guest speakers or performers? Clearly, the responsibility for assessing academic learning extends beyond the program faculty, for we all know that what students learn while in college is an accumulation of learning experiences, both formal and informal.

An assessment plan involves more than determining what students should learn and assessing their learning. It requires time to share the results of the assessment with the faculty members and time to reflect upon what those results may imply for individual courses, course sequences, pedagogical practices, and/or student support. Faculty discussions of assessment results may even lead to recommendations for changes to student support structures, such as the library, technology, career placement, or counseling and can provide substantial documentation supporting requests for needed resources.