Assessment Basic Concepts

Assessment Basic Concepts

Any assessment plan or activity should begin with an objective. For example, learning objectives may be very specific within a class session (e.g., students will explain one specific concept), and relate to broader course outcomes (e.g., students will identify key theories in the field), connect with broader academic program outcomes (e.g., students will apply disciplinary content to solve problems), and speak to even broader institutional outcomes (e.g., students will demonstrate critical thinking skills). 

Below you will find the basic concepts needed to become more intentional with an assessment plan and implementation. Have you ever asked yourself: 

  • Why should I assess if I’m already grading? 
  • What’s the difference between assessment and evaluation? 
  • How does research differ from an assessment?

These terms may be related but are not the same thing. For example, grading is a form of assessment, but assessing questions related to student learning and teaching cannot be answered solely by student grades. Assessment and evaluation are often used interchangeably, but they can differ in how and when the review is implemented, the focus of the review, and what is done with the review’s findings. Assessment, evaluation, and research may share methodologies, but their purpose and audiences differ. Below is a table outlining some distinctions between grading, assessment, evaluation, and research.

Grading vs. Assessment vs. Evaluation vs. Research

Grading Assessment Evaluation Research


To provide summative feedback for an individual student

Provide data to improve to student learning

Primary focus is on formative assessment (improvement)

Provide data to make a judgment or decision.

Primary focus is on summative (judgment).

Add knowledge in a field, development of theory.

Who is Involved?

Instructor determines what is graded and criteria for grading.

Questions originate from key stakeholders and users of the assessment findings

Questions originate from key stakeholders and users of the evaluation findings

Questions originate from scholars

Data and Results  

Reflects individual student performance on courses or course assignments

May reflect class management goals related to student behavior that are separate from learning such as attendance, participation, meeting deadlines.

Attempts to specifically identify and describe what was learned – based on assessment questions or learning outcomes.

Quality and importance judged by stakeholders and those who will use the findings to make decisions

Answers evaluation questions.

Quality and importance judged by stakeholders and those who will use the findings to make decisions

Answers research questions.

Quality and importance are judged based on peer review/experts within the discipline.


Provides a representation of individual performance.

The ability to use results to improve student learning.

​The ability to use results to judge the merit or worth of a program, course, activity.

Value is based on contribution of knowledge to the field.


Letter/marks/points to an individual

Report to stakeholders

Report to stakeholders

Publishable results

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  • Barkley, E. F., & Major, C. H. (2016). Learning assessment techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.
  • Ewell, P. T. (2008). Assessment and accountability in America today: Background and context. New Directions for Institutional Research2008(S1), 7-17.
  • Fink, L. D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Fitzpatrick, J. L., Sanders, J. R., & Worthen, B. R. (2011).  Program evaluation:  Alternative approaches and practical guidelines (4thed.).  New York, NY:  Longman.
  • Maki, P. L. (2010). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution (2nd ed.). Sterling, VA:  Stylus Publishing, LLC.
  • Mertens, D. M., & Wilson, A. T. (2018). Program evaluation theory and practice (2nd et.). New York, NY: Guilford Publications.
  • Montenegro, E., & Jankowski, N. A. (2017, January). Equity and assessment: Moving towards culturally responsive assessment (Occasional Paper No. 29). Urbana, IL: University of Illinois and Indiana University, National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA). Retrieved from
  • New Faculty Academy. (n/d). Grading vs. Assessment of Learning Outcomes: What’s the difference? Retrieved from
  • Schuh, J. H. (2011). Assessment methods for student affairs. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.
  • Schuh, J. H., Biddix, J. P., Dean, L. A., & Kinzie, J. (2016). Assessment in student affairs. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.
  • Suskie, L. (2018). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.
  • Upcraft, M. L., & Schuh, J. H. (2002). Assessment Vs. Research why we Should Care about the Difference. About Campus7(1), 16-20.
  • Walvoord, B. E. (2010). Assessment clear and simple: A practical guide for institutions, departments, and general education. San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.
  • Walvoord, B. E., & Anderson, V. J. (2011). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment in college. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
  • Rogers, P. (2014, May 19). Week 19: Ways of framing the difference between research and evaluation. Retrieved from