Assessment is an essential part of education. Assessment plays a critical role in the teaching and learning process for individual students and in the evaluation of both program and institutional effectiveness. In this piece, we will explore each of these types of assessment and how they improve education in the classroom, in programs, and throughout institutions.
Outcomes-Based Program Assessment
Currently, outcomes-based assessment is the dominating approach to measuring and evaluating the quality of education. A learning outcome expresses what a student should know or be capable of doing based on the knowledge or skill acquired through the learning process as part of an academic program. Outcomes can be observed and measured, which is why numeric values can be given to qualitative attributes. Also, an outcome should be named according to the criteria used to assess it.1
For instance, the attribute “critical thinking” may consist of –depending on the definition of the criteria- the student’s ability to infer information from a text and formulating a critical argument for or against it, so the presence and quality of that ability is measured as an outcome. Thus, outcomes-based assessment provides a means for understanding the quality of academic programs. With thoughtfully designed evaluation methods, data can be generated to enhance the program’s performance on an outcome over time, as well as potential improvements in the academic process.
Assessing Student Learning
Two of the most prevalent methods for measuring and evaluating individual student learning are “formative” and “summative” assessment. Formative assessment is meant to be diagnostic and is sometimes referred to as “low stakes” because it tends to have a lower impact on the final grade. Yet, it is very important, within the learning process, as it consists of the teacher’s feedback student. Within formative assessment, this feedback is critical to help the student grasp the concept and refine their understanding during the process of acquiring the knowledge or skill. In this type of assessment, student work is monitored at all stages of a given assignment (e.g. such as a project, workshop or paper), so that constant feedback is provided.2
Formative assessment is in essence, used to identify student strengths and weaknesses and to make necessary improvements in targeted areas within a short period of time. Drawing concept maps, summarizing texts and submitting research proposals are all examples of formative assessment.
On the other hand, summative assessment shows how well a student has met the learning objective following the learning process, and provides a quantitative evaluation that serves both as a reward for good work, as well as a measure of how the student stands against a standard performance level.3 It is often called “high stakes,” for it often represents a higher value against the final grade and comes in the form of a paper, midterm, or final exam.
The aforementioned methods, as well as multiple variations of those – such as criterion-based and interim assessment- are generally applied with a more traditional approach to assessment, which gives more importance to strictly right or wrong answers, and measures proficiency through multiple choice tests or written exams. Alternative methods, however, are growing in use and institutions are showing interest in experimenting with some of them.
Alternative assessment falls within the limits of both formative and summative methods, but with a different approach. What makes it “alternative” is how it uses those methods in a way that deviates from scrutiny and pressure, to one that aims at nourishing critical thinking and creativity.4 Of course, students will always prefer the evaluation methods with which they can score higher grades, as is the case with alternative methods.
However, those in charge of assessment in institutions have traditionally been reluctant to follow student demands regarding how they are graded, as it may appear to challenge the institution’s authority. Only recently have researchers and faculty wondered why methods in the alternative spectrum score higher grades and what would happen if evaluation could let go of traditional assumptions.5
Recent research shows that students prefer alternative methods, which is no surprise, with the portfolio, project and self-evaluation as the most popular ones. Those methods are refreshing to the summative assessment which is carried out in the form of written papers or multiple choice exams, while the alternative assessment brings students into new scenarios and challenges them to think differently and as a result motivates them.5
Although alternative methods are gaining more traction, traditional ones have no reason to go away anytime soon. Combining both approaches could be the most effective way for institutions to obtain diversified results, in both assessment methods and criteria, which can contribute to assessment validity.
According to a survey on student perception regarding learning assessment in higher education, both low stakes and alternative methods are more popular.5 Quizzes (traditional), projects and portfolios (alternative), are the most ideal methods for students because they provide both qualitative and quantitative results with constant feedback and represent a lower percentage of the final grade. Also, the majority of a student body would have at least one preferred assessment method according to their strengths and weaknesses.
Understanding Assessment in the Academic World
Torrence points out that a paradox can be seen in the formative assessment implementation in higher education. It expects more independent, critical and creative self-learners, while applying restrictive assessment procedures.6 There are a number of misinterpretations about outcomes-based assessment and how assessment methods should operate.
The most fundamental is, arguably, that institutions work with an objective, but in the case of schools, colleges or universities, that objective is to produce learning. With this in mind, for institutions to meet their goals, management must make decisions adjustments accordingly. The paradigm here becomes clear: the success of educational institutions relies on assessing the quality of the education they offer, which in turn is measured through the assessment of student work. Hence, it is easy to wrongly assume that both student and outcomes assessments can be carried out simultaneously, with organizational practices working in hand with pedagogical ones, so, this is something the current outcomes-based assessment models try to avoid.
Interestingly, a learning paradigm has emerged in which institutions are also thinking of themselves as learners and run separate assessment to their administrative processes.1 By approaching institutional, grading and outcomes assessment separately, both the academic and administrative spheres of an educational institution can be measured and dealt with separately, always ensuring a student centered education.
Focusing on outcomes can also be a positive approach, as long as they are designed to make learning effective at all stages of the educational process (K-12 and HE).1 This is why outcomes are thought of as long term objectives that should produce learning, in order to prepare students for the next stage of the academic process.
1 Blackboard Learn Consulting. (2012). An Assessment Guide to Educational Effectiveness
2 Carnegie Mellon University. (n. d.). Whys and hows ef assessment. Retrieved from https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/assessment/basics/formative-summative.html
3 University of Exeter. (n. d.). Principles of assessment. Retrieved from http://www.exeter.ac.uk/staff/development/academic/resources/assessment/principles/types/
4 Petre, A. (2017). The impact of alternative assessment strategies on students. Proceedings of the Scientific Conference AFASES, 2, 157-160. doi:10.19062/2247-3173.2017.19.2.22
5 Crista, N. G. (2017). Student perception regarding learning assessment in higher education. Research Journal of Agricultural Science, 49(1), 182-187.
6 Torrance, H. (2012). Formative assessment at the crossroads: Conformative, deformative and transformative assessment. Oxford Review of Education, 38(3), 323-342. doi:10.1080/03054985.2012.689693