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Assessment involves collecting and using information about student learning. Specifically:
Assessment can occur at various levels of an institution: course, program/major, college and institution. Assessment should occur throughout students' careers, from the first year experiences of new undergraduates through the final stages of the professional or graduate student career.
Research has demonstrated that students learn best when the educational process is purposeful, integrated, and collaborative. In most cases, faculty have learning goals for the students or courses they teach. However, these may not be made explicit. The assessment process involves articulating your learning goals, so that they may be communicated to others, and evaluated for continued improvement. Having explicit goals also facilitates the integration of courses and programs, helps to identify areas of omission or redundancy, and allows you to document success.
There are many approaches to assessing whether you are achieving your learning goals, some of which you probably already use to some degree. However, the advantage of a more systematic approach is that areas of strength or success are identified as well as areas that may need improvement. Subsequent changes can be more effectively targeted, and students may receive more specific feedback about their learning. Assessment also helps to identify the intended outcomes as well as any unintended outcomes of instruction, and ensures that students have sufficient opportunities to achieve the goals you identify as most important.
Situating assessment within the context of higher education:
As a reflection of the learning-centered movement as well as calls for accountability in government, the Higher Education Act of 1998 placed a great deal of emphasis on outcomes assessment as a pre-condition of Title IV funding (e.g. federal student financial aid). Cornell University has been accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education since 1921. Since 1965, federal financial aid (e.g. Pell grants) is provided only to students attending accredited institutions. At the behest of the Higher Education Act re-authorization of 1998, Middle States rewrote the standards for accreditation in 2002 to require that institutions assess student learning.