There is no shortage of opinions on the assessment of student learning in higher education, some have questioned the value of the assessment process (even going so far as to call it “madness”) while others assert the need for assessment and its intrinsic value to student learning and improved teaching.[1] Love it or hate it, accrediting agencies require institutions to assess student learning. And, based on actions taken by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) during 2016, assessment continues to be a source of problems for some institutions. Of the colleges and universities receiving public sanctions from the HLC during 2016, virtually all included concerns related to how institutions evaluate and improve teaching and learning through their assessment process. See HLC Criteria for Accreditation at Criterion 4. Based on these decisions, here are five tips to help prevent your assessment process from becoming an accreditation headache.

1) Be Clear and Understand Your Assessment Process. Make sure your institution understands and can articulate its learning assessment process. Using your academic judgment, we recommend keeping your process simple. Generally, an assessment process includes: 1) development of student learning outcomes; 2) creation of strategies to measure the outcomes and collect relevant data; 3) analysis of data to determine if outcomes were achieved; and 4) assessment of what changes can be made to improve learning and implementation and evaluation of those changes. Whatever the process used by your institution, it is critical that your stakeholders understand the process and can articulate it.

2) Systematically Collect Data from Diverse Sources. Have a schedule for the collection of data used in the assessment process and make sure data is from diverse sources. This includes data from academic and non-academic departments, as well as direct data (e.g., test results) and indirect data (e.g., employer surveys). Additionally, it is important to rely on hard data, not just soft data (i.e., anecdotal evidence).

3) Analyzing the Data Is Not Enough. Once assessment data is analyzed, make sure your institution makes use of what it learns from the data. In other words, make meaningful, data-informed changes as part of your assessment process. Once changes are implemented, evaluate whether changes are having the desired impact and if they are beneficial to student learning. Be sure to document assessment findings and related changes; an assessment conclusion without evidence is likely to be questioned.

4) Remember to Evaluate Co-Curricular Learning and Devote Attention to Student Persistence, Completion and Graduation. Your institution’s assessment process should include evaluation of both curricular and co-curricular learning. This is important as schools regularly forget to assess co-curricular learning. Additionally, evaluate student persistence, completion and graduation rates. Collecting data and having benchmarking goals related to persistence, completion and graduation, without more, is not enough. Your institution also must develop strategies for improving student persistence, completion and graduation and should assess whether strategies are working or should be altered.

5) Incorporate Assessment Into Institutional Planning and Budgeting. Make sure there is a link between assessment findings and institutional planning. In other words, assessment must inform institutional planning decisions and be taken into account when budgeting.

What This Means for You. Assessment is a critical component for accreditation purposes and often is a reason institutions are sanctioned by an accreditor. To avoid this predicament, make sure your institution’s assessment process meets accreditation requirements and avoids common mistakes by following the tips set forth above.