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Minnesota State University, Mankato

Minnesota State University, Mankato
Office of Institutional Planning, Research and Assessment

Assessment Frequently Asked Questions

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What is assessment?

While there are certainly many answers to this question, in the context of this web site and as developed by the Minnesota State University academic community, assessment is the practice of evaluating the manner or degree to which students in academic programs at MSU are learning what they are supposed to be learning. Academic departments and programs at MSU have or are developing student learning outcomes, which are statements of the key indicators of student learning in specific departments and programs. Assessment is designed to compare actual student performance to these student learning outcomes: We say this is what students are learning--are they? That is what assessment is designed to do.

Assessment is used to respond to at least two concerns: 1) Are students learning what they are supposed to be learning? 2) How can educators document that students are learning what they are supposed to be learning? While these two concerns are intertwined, they also fulfill separate functions. Concern one is primarily a question of academics: Are our teaching methods effective? Are our students learning what they should and as well as they should? What can we do to improve student learning? Concern one is aligned with continuing improvement of teaching and learning. Concern two is aligned more with the issue of accountability. Education is increasingly being asked and even required to document that students know and can do what we say they can do--and simple completion of course, program and graduation requirements is not enough. Accountability requires that educators show that students can actually demonstrate what they know and can do--and a grade on a test, a paper or in a course is not sufficient.

Why do I need to do assessment?

Assessment needs to take place for at least two reasons: First, assessment is designed to function as continuing improvement for teaching and learning. Assessment helps educators improve the manner and degree to which students learn what they are supposed to be learning. Assessment provides information that allows educators to make good decisions based on quality information about student learning. Assessment encourages educators to look at what they do in the classroom, how their classroom practices affect student learning, and what changes could be made in teaching methods or materials to enhance student learning. Secondly, we need to do assessment to remain accountable to the publics we serve. Students and their families should be able to see what we do in teaching and learning; accrediting agencies need to know that we are effective in our teaching and learning; legislative and executive governmental bodies provide funding and need to know that these funds are accomplishing their intended purposes.

Assessment of student learning should focus primarily on how we can improve teaching and learning; accountability should flow naturally from the focus on teaching and learning.

What are student learning outcomes?

Student learning outcomes are statements of what a student is expected to know, be able to do, or be disposed toward, following the completion of a course, an academic experience, or a degree program. Student learning outcomes are key indicators of what a student has learned. Student learning outcome statements are written in a specific manner to make it easier to see what a student has or has not learned. See "Writing Measurable Outcomes" on this website for more information about student learning outcomes.

What are methods of assessment?

Methods of assessment are the means used to assess student learning--they are the educational practices we engage in to see if students are learning what we say they are learning. Traditionally, educators have considered class grades as the primary means for assessing student learning. Grades are certainly important; however, in assessing student learning outcomes, other methods have shown to provide more specific information on student knowledge, skills and dispositions. Grades provide a broad and generic report on student performance; other methods allow educators to see more detail concerning student learning. These other methods include such practices as pre- and post-testing on skills and knowledge; writing prompts and samples; reflective writing; portfolios; internships and clinical experiences; and capstone experiences and courses.

Why can't course grades count as assessment of student learning outcomes?

The grade a student receives in a course is an important indicator of what a student knows and can do following the completion of a course. Course grades, however, are simply too broad and general in too many cases to function as effective assessment measures. Grades are often too broad in that they may take into consideration such elements as how much a student has improved over time in a course; how much effort a student has expended in a course; or even the attendance of a student. Grades are not often enough specifically tied to what a student was supposed to learn in a course based on the student learning outcomes of that course. Assessment measures, however, are more closely associated with specific student learning outcomes. Assessment measures are designed to be specific, with assessment solely concerned with the manner or degree to which a student can demonstrate knowledge, skill or disposition.

What is an assessment plan?

Assessment plans are simply a description of the student learning outcomes developed by a department or program, the assessment methods selected for use by that department or program, and the timeline for the gathering, analysis and reporting of assessment results. For more information about assessment plans, please see "The Quick Guide."

What is an assessment report?

Assessment reports are the annual reports completed by all degree-granting programs at MSU. Assessment reports describe the student learning outcomes assessed that year, the assessment methods used, the population assessed, the results of the assessment, and what the department or program plans to do or has done in response to the assessment reports. For more information on assessment reports, please see the "Assessment of Student Learning Report Form."

When are assessment reports due?

Annual assessment reports are due each academic year. Two copies of the annual assessment report are to be submitted to the Dean of your College. One copy will be retained by the College, and one copy will be forwarded to Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment housed in the Office of Academic Affairs.

All degree-granting programs are required to submit an annual assessment report. Not all student learning outcomes need to be assessed each year; all degree-granting programs (graduate and undergraduate) must assess and report on at least one student learning outcome each year. During the five-year program review cycle, all student learning outcomes must be assessed at least once.

What happens with all these assessment reports?

The Director of Institutional Research, Planning and Assessment reviews all annual assessment reports and completes an assessment feedback form for all reports. Each degree-granting program that submits an assessment report receives an assessment feedback report based on the annual assessment report. The annual assessment reports and the feedback reports form the basis for reports to our accrediting body, the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association. The annual reports and feedback reports also form the basis of a summary report on the state of assessment at Minnesota State University.

What is the relationship between assessment and program review?

Program Review is a comprehensive report on the quality of a degree-granting program. Program Review generally occurs once every five years, and involves a self-study by the department or program, as well as a review by outside evaluators.

Assessment is an annual process focused on student learning. Assessment plays a large role in Program Review, as assessment is the main component of Category 2 of the self-study document, Student Achievement.

Assessment must still take place even when programs are undergoing program review.