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What is Assessment?

The term assessment has been defined in various ways in the related literature (Retrieved from

  • Assessment involves the use of empirical data on student learning to refine programs and improve student learning (Assessing Academic Programs in Higher Education, Allen 2003).
  • Assessment is the process of gathering and discussing information from multiple and diverse sources in order to develop a deep understanding of what students know, understand, and can do with their knowledge as a result of their educational experiences; the process culminates when assessment results are used to improve subsequent learning.
  • Assessment is the systematic basis for making inferences about the learning and development of students. It is the process of defining, selecting, designing, collecting, analyzing, interpreting, and using information to increase students’ learning and development (Assessing Student Learning and Development, Erwin 1991).
  • Assessment is the systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development. (Assessment Essentials, Palomba and Banta 2014)

Common to each of these definitions is the collection, analysis, and use of data to improve teaching and student learning. Assessment can answer questions about the learning of individual students, the effectiveness of a single course or program, or even the entire institution. In general, faculty members have worked hard for many years assessing students at the course-level in an effort to understand what students know and are able to do. Faculty members ordinarily communicate the assessment results to students through grades assigned to tests, projects, papers, or a course. Recently, however, there are increasing calls from a variety of stakeholders to improve upon assessment at the program and university levels.

Program-level assessment

focuses on this essential question: What do we expect students in Program X to know and be able to do by the time they complete their studies? At this level, we are concerned about issues such as whether a program fulfills its purposes and whether the courses, individually and collectively, contribute to student outcomes as planned. We are looking here for learning what “sticks,” effecting real change in students, and what can be generalized or transferred beyond a single test or course.

University-level assessment

focuses on this essential question: What do we expect ALL students, regardless of major, to know and be able to do when they graduate? The answers to this question are less specific to a discipline and include more overarching abilities, such as those related to communication (written and oral), critical thinking, and problem solving.