Office of the Provost

Assessment Resources

Definitions for Assessment Terms

  • Assessment: Outcomes assessment is any systematic inquiry whose goal is to improve the teaching/learning process. It can be understood more precisely as a three-step process of 1) defining what students should be able to do, think, or know at the end of a unit of instruction (defining, that is, the student learning outcomes), 2) determining whether, and to what extent, students can do, think, or know it, and 3) using this information to make improvements in teaching and learning.
  • Authentic Assessment: Assessments that involve engaging tasks built around important questions in a particular field of study. The tasks typically require students to produce a significant product or performance. Authentic assessments are usually accompanied by explicitly defined standards.
  • Benchmark: A point in time (e.g., the sophomore year) or a performance standard (e.g., 80% of the students in a particular group will score at a particular level) which measures student progress.
  • Direct/Indirect Assessment: Direct assessment requires students to display their knowledge and skills in response to the measurement instrument itself, as in tests or exams, essays, portfolios, presentations, etc. Indirect assessment usually asks students to reflect on their learning rather than demonstrate it (as in interviews, surveys, focus groups, etc.). Indirect assessment may also ask employers or other interested parties to evaluate student learning as they have had occasion to observe it. Both forms of assessment are valuable, particularly when used in tandem.
  • Embedded Assessment: Using existing coursework (e.g., common questions asked of all students on a final exam in every section of a course) as a means of assessing student learning in aggregate. Collecting assessment information from within the classroom provides an opportunity to use already in-place assignments and coursework for assessment purposes. This involves taking a second look at materials generated in the classroom.
  • Formative/Summative Assessment: Formative assessment is any evaluation taking place during the course of instruction; summative assessment is an evaluation that takes place at the end of a unit of instruction. Formative assessment enables assessors to modify instructional practices in time to improve learning for the particular students being assessed. Summative assessment results inform changes in pedagogy or curriculum for future students. Both forms of assessment can be useful.
  • Learning Outcome: What students can be expected to do, think, or know as a result of a particular course of study. Outcomes are performance oriented, focusing less on what instructors will cover in a course or what their instructional goals are (these are often designated as "objectives") than on what students can produce, perform, or achieve as a marker of success in the course or program. Outcomes are integrated complexes of knowledge and skill.
  • Portfolio: Any purposeful collection of work done by a particular student. The term, of course, is borrowed from the practice of artists, who assemble samples of their paintings for evaluation, sale, etc. Students themselves are usually encouraged to gather the materials for their portfolios themselves, often using a selection process specifying various criteria. Portfolios are then usually evaluating against a rubric. Aggregating the data as one evaluates a number of portfolios in a single class or program (or even across an entire institution) leads to potentially rich outcomes assessment data. Increasingly, portfolios are being digitalized in what are called electronic portfolios or e-portfolios. Besides their value for assessment purposes, portfolios potentially enable students to demonstrate their achievement to prospective employers, graduate schools, etc.
  • Qualitative/Quantitative Assessment: Quantitative assessment results can be expressed in numerical terms; qualitative assessments are usually expressed in narrative form. In many cases, qualitative assessment can be converted to quantitative through the use of rubrics. Both forms of assessment can be valuable.
  • Reliability: The measure of consistency for an assessment instrument. The instrument should yield similar results over time with similar populations in similar circumstances. (Contrast with validity.)
  • Rubric (Analytic vs. Holistic): A rating scale with explicit criteria, used to evaluate any performance, including essays, speeches, presentations, etc. Essays may group various performance criteria under each numerical category (a holistic rubric), or break out each criterion separately and allow for different ratings for each distinct criterion (an analytic rubric). Holistic rubrics are useful for grading purposes, but analytic rubrics are more effective for doing outcomes assessment, since they capture very specific performance characteristics.
  • Standardized Test: Any test given and scored in a uniform manner. Questions on standardized tests are selected after trials for appropriateness and difficulty. Guidelines provided with such tests attempt to eliminate extraneous interference that might influence test results.
  • Validity: The extent to which the assessment measures the desired performance and appropriate inferences can be drawn from the results. A valid assessment accurately measures the learning it claims to measure.

(Some definitions adapted from the Washington Commission on Student Learning, 2000 or from the James Madison University assessment website)

Best Practices for Learning

AAHE's Nine Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning

Other University Assessment Examples

North Carolina State University has a sampling of assessment "handbooks" from other universities and colleges:

Southeast Missouri State University
Busy Chairperson’s Guide to Assessment 

The University of Texas System
Frequently Asked Questions

Arizona State University: University Office of Evaluation and Educational Effectiveness
Assessment Planning for Academic Programs: A Practical Workbook

Estella Mountain Community College
SAAC (Student Academic Achievement Committee) Made Easy

Rochester Institute of Technology
Assessment Guides

Stanford University
Assessment Tools

Cal Poly
Program Level Assessment of Learning Outcomes 
Learning Outcomes Assessment Planning Guide

New Mexico State University
Assessment Revisited: A Guide to De-Cluttering the Assessment Process

Ball State University
Assessment Workbook

Southwestern University (Texas)
Academic Program Assessment Handbook and Form

Northern Arizona University: Office of Academic Assessment
The Path to Achievement and Excellence in Assessing Student Learning at NAU

Indiana University Southeast
Assessment Handbook

Fresno City College: Curriculum Committee
Student Learning Outcomes: A Guide for Faculty

Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide
For science, math, engineering, and technology instructors