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Unit 2

Assessment as a Continuous Improvement Process

Topic 1:  An Overview of Suskie’s Continuous Four-Step Assessment Cycle

As suggested in the opening anecdote, assessment has historically been viewed (and experienced) as an episodic event for most faculty members. In a typical scenario, every 5–10 years committees would be formed to determine department or university compliance with a long list of standards developed by external accreditors. Over a period of months, available information would be gathered and summarized in a lengthy “internal assessment” report to support the claim that the departmental program or university was indeed meeting published accreditation standards. An external evaluation team would then review the report and supporting data and determine whether the university or program was “in compliance” with the required standards. Once the program or university was successfully re-accredited, the report would often sit on an office shelf unopened and unused, serving as a reference to past accomplishments but providing little or no guidance for future activities in the department or university. A similar process was then repeated 5 or 10 years later.

No wonder so many faculty members have a bad attitude about assessment! Their service on assessment (accreditation) committees has had little connection to their lives as professors; their efforts were simply viewed as busy work, necessary at best, and a distracting time-sink at worst. As noted in Unit 1, however, times have changed. Assessment is now viewed as a continuous improvement process directly tied to the expected student learning outcomes of the department and the institution rather than an episodic event. More important, a contemporary view of assessment makes clear the connection between assessment activities and the teaching and learning process.

Critical to recognizing assessment as a continuous learning process is an understanding of the fundamental components/steps of assessment, which are clearly laid out by Linda Suskie in Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide (2009, p. 4):

  1. Establishing clear, measurable expected outcomes of student learning
  2. Ensuring that students have sufficient opportunities to achieve those outcomes
  3. Systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well student learning matches our expectations
  4. Using the resulting information to understand and improve student learning

These four components are connected in a continuous four-step cycle focused on both improvement and accountability, as illustrated in the figure below. Each component in this assessment process plays an important role in promoting high level student learning for all students.

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