The Art Of Program Assessment

"This Is Art, Not Food!" Artist: Mac (4 years old)

The OIA Blog (a blog written by the Office of Institutional Assessment of SCAD) published a piece called Abstraction in Art and Assessment. These two key paragraphs struck a chord with me (I added the bold for emphasis):

It became clear to me that the more abstract an image is, the more I can focus on its essence.  I will not become distracted by the details of the content, but instead focus on the overall beauty of the  shapes and colors.  Taking the focus away from technical mastery, modern movements bring to focus the main reason why I choose to look at art in the first place –  the emotion attached to looking at something familiar in new light.  This same thought explains why I value program assessment.  Program assessment, when done right, should allow faculty to look at their student’s course work – the same course work they grade in class –  in a new light.

The relationship between modern art and more traditional forms of art is a great metaphor to explain the relationship between program assessment and course assessment.  Program assessment (or modern art) is a more abstract form of course assessment (or traditional art).  Program assessment should evoke the essential features of student work –  the technique, the process, and the level of creativity and maturity – in order to measure how well the program is meeting its standards.  On the other hand, course assessment details every element of an assignment (scale, color, spatial awareness, supporting documentation, installation, etc.) in order to provide student’s with specific feedback for improvement.  Neither type of assessment is better than the other, both are equally important 1) because they provide information for different audiences and 2) because they are dependent upon each other.    Just as Miro’s expression of form in The Dutch Interior is dependent on the content in Sohr’s The Lute Player, so are the overarching themes of program assessment inextricably linked to the multiple elements of a course assessment.

The idea of using program assessment to see student learning in a new light is intriguing, as are the analogies of modern art to program assessment and traditional art to course assessment. I especially appreciate the idea that assessment in the course is feedback intended to extend students’ learning and development.

My main take away from this post is really about the importance of aligning our intentions across the different levels of learning and assessment. Are our intentions for student learning in courses aligned to our intentions for student learning in our programs and then, across an institution? If the intentions — often stated as learning outcomes — are in alignment, then we can see the trees (assessment of student learning in courses), the forest (program assessment), and the entire ecosystem (institutional assessment). And as the OIA article points out, indeed, we may use different lights and different lenses to see and to appreciate learning at each level.


The Levels of Assessment white paper from AAC&U is a helpful overview of alignment of learning and assessment at various levels, and is a resource I often use to think about the relationships between individual student learning, learning in courses, learning across programs, and what the institution as a whole intends for student learning.


One thought on “The Art Of Program Assessment

  1. Seeing things in a new light is a brilliant (no pun intended) way to acquire new learning. This post reminds me of a paper/process I did on a play by Bertolt Brecht in grad school. I used a visual art scanning process to examine the literature. The “new light” or looking at the text through the lenses of form, color, texture, shape, symmetry, etc. became the catalyst for my deeper learning and for my new learning about Brecht’s work.

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