The purpose of assessment at St. Olaf College is to help us determine whether, how, and how well, we are meeting our educational promises to our students. It is one of several forms of inquiry into student learning, with implications for our classroom practices, our curriculum, and our priorities for faculty development. At its best, assessment can help us sustain what we are doing well and strengthen what we need to do better.
Assessment at St. Olaf is defined as: the ongoing collection and analysis of systematic evidence concerning the relationship between educational practices and student learning, for purposes of program improvement.
- Systematic evidence may be gathered through a variety of methods, both qualitative and quantitative.
- Educational practices may include curriculum requirements, instructional strategies, programs of study, and other dimensions of the educational programs and services offered by the college.
- Student learning may include many kinds of outcomes, including not only knowledge, but also skills, attitudes, and values.
St. Olaf's definition strongly resembles that provided by Mary E. Huba and Jann E. Freed in their book Learner-Centered Assessment on College Campuses: Shifting the Focus from Teaching to Learning (2000).
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 (p.8).
A conceptualization of assessment as a form of inquiry in support of student learning can affect what we assess, how we assess, and why we assess. Inquiry in support of student learning, like other kinds of inquiry, springs from questions or puzzles originating in the lived professional experiences and disciplined reflections of committed teacher-scholars.
Moreover, it can draw on a wide array of methodological tools originating in those same experiences and reflections. Assessment need not be restricted to quantitative research conducted within the positivist social science tradition. It can draw on multiple methodologies (feminist, post-positivist, historical, etc.) and multiple kinds of evidence (narratives, portfolios, interviews, content analysis, etc.), to provide richer and more persuasive evidence of the process and outcomes of student learning.
Equally important, assessment grounded in the disciplines will facilitate the effort to make the process of conducting inquiry inherently educational. If such inquiry is to be embedded in our academic programs, the methods of inquiry need to be grounded in the disciplines characterizing these programs. We need to inquire into our teaching in ways that fit what and how we teach; we need to inquire into student learning in ways that fit what and how students learn. This effort supports faculty learning as well as student learning. The better the fit between inquiry in support of student learning and the roles, responsibilities, and rewards of faculty and staff, the more likely it is that such inquiry will be undertaken and used to improve student learning.