Student Outcome Assessment
The example above is outcome assessment. Outcomes Assessment attempts to measure what students have actually learned in relation to what we teach them. In fact, despite all of the jargon assessment can be boiled down to three simple questions:
1) What (specifically) do we want students to know?
2) How do we know that they have learned it?
3) How can we help them to learn it more effectively?
We must first distinguish between inputs and outputs. Our teaching are the "inputs." The curriculum, requirements, particular classes, senior exercise assignments, lectures, discussions, seminars, are all inputs. As instructors, we have the most control over inputs and we are the most comfortable with assessing them. For instance, in our faculty evaluation procedures, part of our evaluation of teaching is based on faculty letters whose evidentiary basis comes from observing classes and reviewing syllabi and assignments. When we have external reviews, those reviewers are generally looking at inputs (increasingly, however, external reviewers are interested in knowing more about outcomes). We are pretty comfortable with this kind of evaluation. But what the evaluation of inputs, however high quality, cannot tell us is whether our students are actually learning the things we want them to learn. For this we need to look more closely at what students are actually doing; these are "outcomes." We are often anxious about outcome assessment because we believe, as the adage goes, that we can lead the horses to water but we can't make them drink. We are anxious about having our work evaluated based on what students have learned because we cannot control student behavior. We can only control what we do in class. Assessment doesn't change that necessarily, but at the very least it might help us to see which teaching strategies succeed and which do not, thus offering some measure of the effectiveness of our teaching. It might help us to eliminate procedures that take up a lot of time, but which yield insignificant results.
As Figure 2 suggests, what assessment strives to do (and what we already do implicitly) is to establish a feedback loop between inputs and outcomes. As we evaluate our students' work, we go back and examine our teaching (curriculum, syllabi, assignments) and refine them. Again the assessment of student outcomes simply makes explicit a process that goes on informally and implicitly all the time.
Is there a benefit to making what is implicit in our work more explicit? In this case I think yes. There is a psychology to grading that tends to make us remember and dwell on the negative outcomes of our grading. We tend to forget the things that went right. Since I believe that in fact our students do have transformative experiences at Kenyon, I also believe that making our assessment of student learning more explicit might show us some surprising things that our students are learning and that we are doing very well and it might help us more effectively target those things that need attention.
We can evaluate our students learning either directly or indirectly. As part of the evaluation process for faculty, TPC and the provost look at student evaluations for all courses and at letters written by students about the faculty member's teaching. These are indirect assessments of student learning. In these assessments, students are telling us what they think they have learned. Other examples of indirect assessment include exit interviews and surveys. But of course indirect assessments, however useful, do not necessarily demonstrate that students have learned what they say they've learned. A test is a direct assessment of learning (see above on the relationship between grading and assessment). If I want students to demonstrate that they know how to find the hypotenuse of a right triangle or they know the causes of the Spanish American war or what a metaphor is, I can ask those question on a test and if they answer correctly, I have direct proof that they learned it.
Increasingly external accrediting bodies are asking for direct assessments of student learning outcomes. For instance, the Higher Learning Commission's Criteria for Reaccreditation, Core Component 3a states: "Assessment of student learning includes multiple direct and indirect measures of student learning."