Assessment in Higher Education

The content: 10 Meta Trends in Higher Education Assessment was originally presented by Dr. Stephen Hundley, Senior Advisor to the Chancellor for Planning and Institutional Improvement and Dr. Susan Kahn, Director of Planning and Institutional Improvement Initiatives at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI).

Can assessment help us understand how and why, as well as what students learn? How can assessment help us to educate and develop the whole student?

Higher education assessment in the United States has grown steadily throughout the last 35 years. Becoming a reliable source for implementing best practices, assessment now plays a critical role within institutions and those whom they serve.

With 35 years of data collected, we sought to identify the current trends that both work and need improving by asking the tough questions: How are we approaching the assessment of learning today? How can assessment more effectively inform improvement efforts? What new trends are positively impacting the future of assessment? As a result, what surfaced were 10 meta-trends of assessment that serve as pillars for growth, as well as the key areas that need our continued effort. 

But first, what is assessment?

Assessment in higher education measures what an individual student knows, can do, and how it impacts the institution as a whole. Institutions collect information to understand a student’s learning process and discover patterns of strengths and weaknesses among groups. Outcomes are extremely beneficial to the institution, as they serve to inform and direct proper educational planning, decision-making, and resource allocation. In short, assessment determines whether or not a higher institution’s education model is making a difference in the lives of its students.

The 10 Meta-Trends in Assessment Today

1. Assessments, done well, can make important contributions to understanding and improving student learning and success.

Assessment outcomes highlight the strengths and unearth the deficiencies of an institution’s education model. Over the years, colleges and universities have adopted assessment tools to enhance their educational relationship with their students. Sadly, and to their detriment, too few institutions, programs, and staff are doing the hard work of collecting truly actionable data. By neglecting to properly assess this information, educational institutions miss invaluable opportunities when it comes to educational planning, decision making, resource allocation, and student learning.

2. Tension remains between accountability and improvement.

Many higher education institutions are held accountable by their accreditors to implement certain assessment practices. This may bring a sigh of relief to some, however, assessment that’s demanded for accreditation standards rarely generates information meaningful for improvement. The future of assessment needs to re-focus on improvement to ensure that data produces meaningful outcomes, or else the time and resources spent collecting the information is wasted and students’ educational needs are never realized.

3. Assessment requires leadership and broader stakeholder engagement.

Educational assessment must be a strategic institutional priority among the leadership. When leadership casts a vision to enhance their educational models, it impacts their institutional culture by trickling down to staff and educators who interact with the students. Proper assessment standards administered by leadership would even influence what teachers they hire and how they reward assessment excellence. Additionally, we need to find more compelling ways to communicate with internal and external stakeholders, like policy makers and parents, as to how our assessments are improving the learning experiences of our students.

4. Assessment is growing more inclusive, equity-oriented, and reflective of the diverse students our institutions serve.

Students enter higher education with various backgrounds that influence how they learn. More privileged students are often aware of how to navigate the sea of higher education utilizing all the necessary tools available to them, while lesser privileged students may require more attention to provide equitable access to learning experiences and resources.

Disaggregation of assessment findings can help determine which groups of students are benefiting. This will provide the information needed to implement interventions to close the equity gaps, while providing learning experiences that incorporate diverse perspectives for all students.

5. Assessment is broadening its perspective on outcomes to include students’ personal, academic, and professional development.

A student’s educational experience is more than grades and individual learning styles. Assessment standards are in the infancy stages that need to move beyond simply evaluating academic data, and give equal attention to the students personal and professional development. This is acquired through a holistic approach of developing students. Whole student development includes maturity, self-awareness, emotional intelligence, professionalism, leadership abilities, as well as neurocognitive and dispositional skills. A holistic approach ties into the previous assessment trend of being more inclusive and equity-oriented.

6. Assessment is starting to focus on learning processes and experiences, in addition to its traditional focus on outcomes.

One significant transition in the field of assessment is the attention given to the learning process and experience, not just the outcome. “Assessment” and “Outcome Assessment” have become almost synonymous, but outcomes don’t necessarily tell the whole story. Implementing proper improvement practices can come from examining the students’ learning experiences, practices, and the best environments for a student to learn.

7. Authentic measures are increasingly necessary and valued.

Students themselves can often be the greatest asset to learning the best educational methods that fit their learning style. Authentic measures can offer actionable insights into how and why students learn, in addition to what they learn. Transparency is very important to authentic learning, we make students collaborators and co-investigators by inviting them into the goals, aims, and purposes educators have for the learning.

Current promising practices for authentic measures include ePortfolios, which curate, showcase, and reflect on learning for the student. VALUE rubrics provide tools to assess students’ own authentic work. And finally, Comprehensive Learning Records, which help engage students in how they are learning both on a curricular and co-curricular level.

8. Ongoing professional development continues to be essential to developing and sustaining systematic, well-designed assessment practices.

Assessment competence may not have been properly taught in graduate level schools where leadership, staff, and educators were trained. An ongoing professional development in the assessment practices would ensure all levels of any higher education institution are informed on relevant assessment practices. Common approaches could include internal consulting, workshops, partnering with teaching and learning centers.

Given the high rate of turnover, especially in the leadership tier, professional development in assessment would ensure consistency as new seats are filled in leadership roles.

9. Assessment work must be valued and recognized to result in sustained improvement.

All too often, the effort and expertise involved in assessment work is not sufficiently valued and rewarded by administrators and colleagues, specifically when it comes to promotion decisions for faculty. The culture of the enterprise must change at the highest level. This can be achieved by including it in the mission statement (in addition to the high value that is placed on teaching and learning). Also, implementing rewards programs and recognition for those who value and recognize the need to sustain improvement. Internal recognition will help promote the need for assessment and its benefits for educational improvement among students.

10. Assessment has not yet realized its full potential.

Just as assessment in education yields better results for student engagement in learning, assessment standards need their own assessments. To realize full potential, assessment practices must reconsider what and how we assess and how we can best foster genuine improvements in student achievement. The process has become more complex as we evaluate more about the student than we ever have. Yet, the relationship between assessment findings and improvement actions lies a deep chasm. There is still a lot of work ahead for this vital component to education and academics.


In Conclusion

Fortunately, assessment is on an upward swing, so long as institutions continue to implement the proper vision needed to bring necessary improvements and resource allocation. Collectively, we need to confront data and feedback and embrace forward thinking to meet our students right where they are with the best experience possible.


For more detailed information on this topic watch the Meta-Themes and Meta-Trends in Assessment: Enduring Principles, Emerging Opportunities webinar recording.


Stephen Hundley, Ph.D.

Stephen Hundley is Senior Advisor to the Chancellor for Planning and Institutional Improvement at Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI), an urban-serving institution with 30,000 students. He is Professor of Organizational Leadership within the Department of Technology Leadership and Communication in IUPUI’s School of Engineering and Technology. Hundley provides strategic advice and consultation to the Chancellor on a range of matters pertaining to IUPUI’s strategy, effectiveness, and future directions. Additionally, he leads the Office of Planning and Institutional Improvement, including facilitating the administrative and program review processes; directs campus strategic planning and other improvement-oriented activities; handles the executive search function for the campus; and serves as executive sponsor of IUPUI’s Program Review and Assessment Committee.

Hundley also chairs the annual national-level Assessment Institute in Indianapolis, now the nation’s oldest and largest event focused exclusively on outcomes assessment in higher education. This event was launched at IUPUI in 1992 under the direction of Hundley’s predecessor, Dr. Trudy Banta, the Institute’s founding chair, who retired from IUPUI in June 2016. In 2017, Hundley assumed the role as executive editor of Assessment Update, published bi-monthly by Wiley/Jossey-Bass. With Susan Kahn, he is co-editor of the Stylus publication Trends in Assessment: Ideas, Opportunities and Issues for Higher Education (October 2019).

Hundley has addressed a variety of audiences in more than 30 countries on six continents and throughout the United States. He writes, consults, and presents on topics related to organizational effectiveness, learning and development strategies, and higher education administration. Additionally, he has been recognized for his accomplishments through teaching, publication, and service awards and has received competitive funding from federal and state agencies and private foundations to support his work. His prior administrative roles include program director, department chair, and associate dean for academic affairs and undergraduate programs in the School of Engineering and Technology; associate vice chancellor for strategic initiatives in the Office of the Executive Vice Chancellor and Chief Academic Officer; and interim associate vice chancellor for undergraduate education and dean of University College. Hundley earned a doctorate from American University in Washington, D.C.

Susan Kahn, Ph.D.
Susan Kahn joined IUPUI in 1998 as Director of the Urban Universities Portfolio Project, a six-campus national project that produced the first generation of electronic institutional portfolios. She went on to direct the campus’s student ePortfolio Initiative, guiding its development from a fledgling project to an institution-wide approach to enhancing student learning and development and supporting authentic, multi-faceted assessment. She is currently IUPUI’s Director of Planning and Institutional Improvement Initiatives, a role which includes serving as associate editor of Assessment Update and co-organizing the Assessment Institute in Indianapolis. With Stephen Hundley, she is co-editor of the Stylus publication Trends in Assessment: Ideas, Opportunities and Issues for Higher Education (October 2019).

Before joining IUPUI, Kahn directed a University of Wisconsin System-wide faculty development office that led initiatives focused on effective teaching and learning and on expanding campuses’ capacity to support teaching and learning. She simultaneously served as Senior Academic Planner for the UW System, leading and staffing a wide range of statewide academic and policy initiatives, and as Special Assistant to the system’s Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs. In all of her roles, Kahn has sought to support student and faculty development, to enable students, departments, schools, and the institution to document student learning of key collegiate abilities and skills, and to demonstrate institutional accountability for student learning and educational effectiveness. She has published, presented, and consulted frequently on faculty development, assessment, and electronic portfolios. Kahn holds an AB from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, and MA and PhD from the University of Wisconsin, all in English literature, and enjoys team-teaching the senior capstone seminar in IUPUI’s Department of English each spring.



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