Vanderbilt University Assessment Website

About Assessment

What is assessment?

Assessment is the ongoing process of:

  1. establishing clear, measurable, expected outcomes that demonstrate institutional effectiveness;
  2. implementing programs and practices designed to achieve those outcomes;
  3. systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well programs and practices are working at meeting their expected outcomes; and,
  4. using the resulting information to understand and improve institutional effectiveness.

Back to Top

How is assessment different than evaluation?

Evaluation is a part of the assessment process (step 3 from above) that entails using information to make informed judgments on such things as:

  1. whether programs are achieving their stated goals;
  2. the relative strengths and weaknesses of programming strategies; and,
  3. what changes in program goals and strategies might be appropriate.

It is systematically gathering, analyzing and interpreting evidence to determine how well programs and practices are working to meet their expected outcomes.

Comparision of Chracteristics
Assessment vs Evaluation
Assessment Evaluation
Formative -
Cyclical - ongoing to improve learning
Summative -
final to gauge quality
Process-Oriented -
How learning is going
Product-Oriented -
What's been learned
Reflective -
Internally defined criteria/goals
Prespective -
Externally imposed standards
Diagnostic -
Identify areas for improvement
Conclusive -
Arrive at an overall grade/score
Flexible -
Adjust as problems are clarified
Fixed -
Determine success or failure in reaching desired outcome

Back to Top

Key questions in the assessment cycle

  • What are we trying to do? Why?
  • What is my program/office/course supposed to accomplish?
  • What do I want my students to be able to do and/or know as a result of my course/program?
  • How well are we doing what we are trying to do? How do we know?
  • How do we use the information to improve or celebrate successes?
  • Do the improvements we make contribute to our intended end result?

Back to Top

At what levels does assessment occur?

There are many levels at which assessment in higher education can take place. Assessment can have a scope as broad as assessing a group of institutions (such as in a consortium of one's peers), and as narrow as the individual student.

The resources on this website are focused on the department/program level.

The Levels of Assessment in Higher Education

Group of Institutions






Back to Top

What are the benefits of assessment?

Faculty and Staff

  • Clearly identifies expectations
  • Helps determine what will be evaluated
  • Coordinates what is taught or enacted and what is evaluated
  • Provides the basis for communication among faculty, staff and administrators across the institution about important learning and operational outcomes
  • Supplies direction for co-curricular programs


  • Allows students to see the big picture regarding their education
  • Clearly identifies expected learning
  • Prioritizes learning
  • Provides understanding about where they should focus their time and energies
  • Helps them understand their strengths and weaknesses

The Institution

  • Publicizes the institution’s purpose in terms of learning outcomes
  • Helps ensure that institutional mission, core values, and learning outcomes are consistent
  • Gives direction to the evaluation of student learning and institutional effectiveness at the institutional level
  • Helps ensure institutional resources are being spent in the most effective ways where they’ll have the greatest impact
  • Supplies structure for reporting to various constituencies the accomplishments of students, programs, and the institution as a whole

The Public

  • Satisfies accountability requirements of legislators and state education agencies, professional and regional accreditation agencies
  • Helps the general public, including alumni, donors, and friends to understand more clearly what an institution seeks to accomplish
  • Provides prospective students with valuable information about learning goals and achievements that can be used to guide their choice of an institution to attend

Back to Top

References and Suggested Readings

Click here for a list of assessment resources used to create this website and for additional suggested readings.

Back to Top