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.

Connecting Paper And Image: Assessment As Origami

Thanks to Claudia M&M on Flickr for making this image available for use.

Joshua Brown, the editor of Research & Practice in Assessment (published by the Virginia Assessment Group), wrote in his From The Editor column in the Winter 2011 issue this interesting idea about assessment paradigms:

Whereas Western art focuses upon the freedom to move images around on paper or canvas to create fixed patterns, origami ignores the separation between the image and the paper. The paper becomes part of the image, and is twisted and folded until it is the picture, not merely the surface on which it lies. -John D. Barrow, The Artful Universe

Just as the artist of origami has a different approach to perceiving the relationship between image and paper, the thematic focus of this issue invites inquiry as to whether assessment might adopt similar connecting paradigms. In establishing and executing assessment initiatives, there are places where our focus is predominantly one of separation – our rubrics have multiple levels of competencies, item correlation allows us to maximize the efficiency of our scales, and purpose statements or objectives are arranged in a structured hierarchy. We strive for increased validity and reliability, but even good research techniques possess implications regarding their social, psychological, and educational contexts. There is an ongoing tension between focusing on the trees while at the same time giving appropriate attention to the forest.

As such, it is worth considering, to what extent can assessment also function as a mechanism that connects broader realms rather than one which at times is noted for solely focusing on measurement or standardization? In addition to its dominant descriptive or defining properties, is it possible for assessment to also possess generative properties? [bold added here for emphasis] I am not positing these philosophical assessment questions to establish rigid dichotomies. In fact, it may be more beneficial for me to ask these of my own assessment practices. While aiming to achieve the utilitarian ideals of efficiency and effectiveness, is it also possible for me to construct my assessments in a manner that advances good human behavioral, educational, and social theory? Is it really possible for me to look at a Scantron sheet in a manner that resembles the philosophical paradigm of the origami artist?

The paradigm of the origami artist … assessment as generative, as learning … paper and image as one … learningteachingassessmentlearningteachingassessmentlearning.

This poses assessment as a part of learning; learning as a part of assessment; the two entwined in meaningful ways. Not assessment of learning, but for and as learning.

From here on out I will see myself as an origami artist, connecting paper and image to become one, to generate, to advance, to learn.  In fact, perhaps the best use of a Scantron sheet might be to fold it into a bird so that it might fly away … far, far away.