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The Journal of General Education 52.4 (2003) 335-346

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Addressing Key Challenges in Higher Education Assessment

The planning and implementation of institutional and programmatic assessment to ascertain what students have learned and how well they have learned it encompasses a number of challenges. Some of these major challenges are gaining institutional resources for assessment, designing faculty development plans, determining student learning outcomes and measuring them, and making changes based upon assessment results. There are numerous issues, but the focus in this article is on the challenges that seem to be most prevalent. This discussion also emphasizes those issues that must be addressed on a continuous basis in order to sustain a rigorous assessment process over time.

Gaining Institutional Resources for Assessment

The process of assessing student learning, like other programmatic or institutional endeavors, competes for scarce and valued resources. Because of this competition, it is extremely important to gain administrative support for assessment planning and implementation (Jones, 2002; Kuh, Gonyea, & Rodriguez, 2002; Upcraft & Schuh, 1996). Institutional administrators and senior academic leaders become the "public advocate, leader, and facilitator for creating an institutional culture that is open to change, willing to take risks, and fosters innovations by providing real incentives for participants" (Jones, Voorhees, & Paulson, 2002, p. 20). In sum, these individuals can provide multifaceted leadership through external, strategic, process, and technical vision (Peterson & Vaughan, 2002). Without a strong political foundation, the assessment structure will fail (Terenzini, 1989). [End Page 335]

Institutional Leadership

Given the direct linkage between institutional leaders and the successful acquisition of resources to support the assessment effort, it is worth examining those leadership traits that exist in flourishing assessment programs. In the National Postsecondary Education Cooperative study conducted by Jones, Voorhees, and Paulson (2002), a number of important leadership traits were identified as hallmarks of success. The researchers noted that these leaders:

  • are directly involved in the assessment process;
  • meet regularly with assessment personnel;
  • maximize honest, open, two-way communication;
  • establish an environment based on trust;
  • treat faculty, staff, and administrators as collaborators in a team effort;
  • demonstrate a commitment to assessment by providing real incentives for participation and support (e.g., time, teaching loads, grants, stipends, students);
  • encourage assessment personnel to use a deliberate planning process;
  • make slow, incremental changes thereby increasing chances for success; and
  • approve the integration of assessment and budgets.

To gain the above caliber of institutional sponsorship, assessment leaders need to justify and gain resources to plan, implement, and sustain the assessment effort. "Adequate resources are a necessary component of successful assessment strategies" (Banta, Lund, Black, & Oblander, 1996, p. 66).

Resource Expenditures

The literature illuminates a number of different costs associated with the assessment endeavor. The Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) specifies that resources to conduct assessment initiatives should encompass "human, financial, technical, physical facilities, and other resources necessary to achieve an institution's [End Page 336] mission and goals" (2003, p. 59). The Commission identifies six areas in particular where leaders and faculties may expect to incur assessment expenses. These are related to: (1) personnel costs; (2) constructing new or purchasing existing assessment instruments; (3) administering instruments, conducting interviews or focus groups; (4) data entry; (5) computer hardware and software; and (6) communication costs for organizing efforts and for report and disseminating results.

Institutional Budget

Consideration of the resource expenditures described above is a critical part of the initial assessment planning process. However, leaders and faculty need to be especially cognizant that many of these costs will remain as part of the resources required to sustain the assessment effort. For example, the purchase of computer hardware to support assessment efforts can be considered an initial cost given that the equipment will not likely be replaced for years. But, there are a number of ongoing costs (such as measurement instruments, travel, and grants) that need to be forecasted in the institutional and assessment budgets.

In an effort to make the assessment process as cost effective and operationally efficient as possible, many academic leaders link...


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