Since the dawn of the "assessment movement" in higher education in the 1980s, pinning down a broadly shared concrete definition has remained elusive. To be sure, there are many definitions available and in-use among the numerous institutions of higher learning. These definitions often have cross-over, and perhaps one day, someone will take on the task of compiling all of them into one concise yet comprehensive definition that satisfies everyone. That "someone" is not I, at least not today. Suffice it to say that the lack of a clear shared definition for assessment in higher education has led many to think of assessment as simply a compliance issue rather than integral to the teaching and learning process.
The Higher Learning Commission defines assessment as "evaluating the effectiveness of student learning and achievement of learning outcomes through processes designed to promote continuous improvement." This is a fairly broad definition, as it integrates the "what": evaluation of student learning with the "why": continuous improvement. As an HLC Assessment Academy student for three years, I may be biased. Still, I prefer this holistic definition, as it provides all stakeholders with a specific reason to buy into the assessment process- the continuous improvement of student learning.
While regulatory compliance is important, if participants in the assessment process only see it as an obligatory compliance activity, making the process meaningful is all but impossible. The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) argues that assessment efforts must be "consensus-based." Stakeholders must have a shared understanding and vision for what they wish to achieve through assessment to be successful.
A clear definition that combines the "what" and the "why" is an essential foundation upon which to build meaningful assessment. This process should include all responsible stakeholders and provide the first step in cultivating a transparent and sustainable culture of improvement. As varying opinions emerge, the depth of understanding concurrently increases as individuals are forced to talk through their differing positions. These continuous conversations become an integral component for ensuring buy-in among all stakeholders, alignment on assessment's function, and continued improvement in the ways assessment is undertaken.
Assessment in higher education is a complex enterprise, and we should approach it with the deliberate thoughtfulness necessary for success. A collaborative and unified approach is fundamental to moving assessment beyond compliance and into a space of continuous meaningful improvement of teaching and learning.