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Demonstrating Learning

As important as it is to have curricular goals, learning outcomes and a curricular map, the actual demonstration of student learning occurs through student work that is designed with the learning outcome or outcomes in mind. We often refer to these as “assessment measures” or “assessment methods” but the terms “measures” and “methods” suggest that all assessment is about numbers. This is not the case. Assessment needs to be relevant to the knowledge or skills in question. One would not assess student learning as demonstrated by a student’s original sculpture by weighing the sculpture!

Direct Versus Indirect Assessment

The most important distinction in the practice of assessment is between direct assessment and indirect assessment.

Direct assessment involves any tasks or activities that require students to demonstrate directly what they have learned in terms of knowledge and/or skills. For a course these include class and homework assignments, exams and quizzes, papers and reports, lab work, fieldwork, research projects and oral presentations (in the latter case, only if a rubric is used). For a department or program, direct assessment might involve a capstone requirement with its component elements (substantial research paper, performance, creative project such as a musical composition or choreographed dance). Direct assessment is always observable and sometimes measurable.

Indirect assessment involves any tasks or activities from which one can infer student learning but in which that learning is not demonstrated directly. Indirect assessment can include course evaluations, “knowledge surveys” in which students describe how well they learned something, or other types of self-report. Indirect assessment can be an extremely useful supplement to direct assessment but at this point in time the expectation of education constituents from parents to employers to regional accrediting agencies is that assessment programs will focus on direct assessment and that all college and university departments, programs, and general education programs will use direct assessment.

Embedded Assessment

Where possible, it is a good idea to design demonstrations of student learning based on the principle of embedded assessment: assess student work that is already being done for a grade. This approach to assessment has several benefits:

  • It avoids adding another layer of work for faculty members. Carrying out assessment already adds some work on top of grading but designing an entire new assignment simply for the purposes of assessment adds yet more work.
  • By definition embedded assessment focuses on work that already makes sense for the course or program. If it is reasonable for a student in a course on the New Testament to be able to compare material from across the Synoptic Gospels, assessment that focuses on such a skill is unarguably appropriate.
  • Given the point immediately above, embedded assessment guarantees that faculty members, departments, and programs assess what they actually care about students learning rather than generating a meaningless exercise that involves assessment but has no actual value.
Designing a Demonstration of Student Learning

Designing a demonstration of student learning simply involves designing or modifying a course or program assignment based on the relevant learning outcomes as well as developing a rubric for use in determining how effectively students learned.