Assessment Trends in Higher Education

September 15, 2023 Watermark Insights

Assessment Trends in Higher Education

Assessment plays a pivotal role in the future of higher education, as institutions constantly seek ways to improve the student experience, boost enrollment and retention, and prepare students for successful careers. In many ways, assessment has a more profound effect on student learning than teaching. 

The COVID-19 pandemic resulted in global disruptions and forced institutions of higher learning to adopt new teaching and learning methods, which resulted new assessment trends in education. While the pandemic resulted in many challenges, higher education institutions could benefit from the resulting forced migration to digitally-enabled assessment. Current trends in assessment reflect these incidental benefits. In many ways, COVID-19 facilitated a fundamental shift in the assessment of global learning, creating well-rounded students ready to take on successful careers. 

As assessment is one of the most profound methods institutions can use to boost student success and power institutional improvement initiatives, staying current with assessment trends is imperative for higher education institutions. 

Defining Assessment in Higher Education

In simple terms, assessment in higher education measures what students know and what they can do. Educators and administrators gather information to better understand how students learn and discover strengths and weaknesses, not just in students but also in curricula and teaching methods. 

Assessments also measure how student learning impacts the institution, making it a mutually beneficial process. Institutions have actionable data on which to base improvements, and student benefit from these improvements. In addition, assessments can inform resource allocation and educational planning. In short, assessment helps institutions confidently understand how to make the most significant impact in the lives of the students they serve. 

14 Trends in Higher Education Assessment

How we assess learning is the backbone of student success. It drives institutional improvement and gives institutions valuable insights into how students perform and prepare for the workplace. Assessments present opportunities for improvement in teaching, assessing, and engaging students. 

Over the years, student assessment has evolved to reflect the ever-changing educational landscape. The COVID-19 pandemic forced institutions to reevaluate their teaching and assessment strategies and brought many student support challenges to the fore. Some of the emerging trends in higher education assessment include:

1. Changing Desired Outcomes

Holistic outcomes are replacing the more one-dimensional learning-based outcomes of the past. Passing summative assessments is no longer the sole objective for institutions. Instead, outcomes continue to support holistic student development. The Council for the Advancement of Standards in Higher Education (CAS) created a framework that outlines six outcome dimensions that support the development of the whole student. 

These outcomes prioritize assessment in the following areas:

  • Career-specific knowledge
  • Critical and reflective thinking skills
  • Interpersonal development
  • Interpersonal competence
  • Humanitarianism and civic engagement
  • Practical competence

2. Shifting Toward New Assessment Types

Summative assessment has long been the go-to assessment model for higher learning institutions. In recent years, however, the limitations of this model have become increasingly apparent. Summative assessments give students one way to demonstrate their knowledge at the end of an instructional period and often favor some students over others. It also limits ongoing feedback and widens the divide between students and educators.

In response, institutions see the value in formative assessments throughout the course. This interactive format allows educators to tweak their approaches throughout an instructional period, addressing challenges or gaps in student knowledge as they arise. 

Programmatic assessment — different assessment methods designed across an entire curriculum — is another noteworthy trend. Educators assess students on activities that allow insight into how well they achieve program goals. Instead of legacy methods where passing or failing could rest on a single data point, the assessments are more holistic and focused on broader course outcomes like workplace readiness. This method provides an assessment of global learning, allowing educators to understand how students perform concerning longer-term career goals.

3. Embracing Innovation

Technological innovation has touched higher learning institutions on every level. In the classroom, learning has expanded to create a sense of community through social media platforms and virtual classrooms. Multimedia has taken on new meaning with augmented and virtual reality tools featuring more in lessons. 

Assessments have enjoyed the benefits of innovative technology as well. Data-driven decision-making has become the new norm in many institutions, and many are using artificial intelligence (AI) student success solutions to keep students engaged, increase retention, identify and support at-risk students, and improve student outcomes such as degree completion. 

Embracing Innovation

With the enhanced ability to gather student data, institutions are making that data actionable and using it to drive improvement at all stages of the student journey. The ability to use data to drive success has resulted in a shift towards better assessment technology. Formative assessments provide data educators can use to improve student outcomes in real-time. In the long term, administrators and decision-makers can use the data to drive instructional best practices, increase student engagement and inform curricula. 

4. Leveraging Data-Informed Proactive Advising

Formative assessment models combined with data can provide educators and coaches with information on which students are struggling and how to engage with them. Early alerts notify advisors when students struggle, prompted by low scores on early assessment or low course enrollment. With this data, advisors can intervene at critical moments, providing students with actionable strategies for getting back on track and encouraging them to take advantage of study groups and learning centers. 

In addition to facilitating advisor interventions, assessment data can prompt course redesign and further investigation into courses many students don't finish. This assessment model has significant implications for institutions and a proactive approach to handling struggling students can increase retention — a positive outcome for institutions in times of declining student enrollment. 

5. Increasing Leadership and Stakeholder Engagement

Assessment is becoming more of a culture than a practice in many institutions as more institution leaders and critical stakeholders experience the value of supporting student learning with data-driven decisions. When leaders use data to drive student participation and change educational programming to foster student engagement, this culture of improvement and student support filters throughout the institution. 

Institutions will likely continue using more effective communication methods with stakeholders, from students and parents to policymakers, to gather feedback on how their assessments support student learning experiences. This trend represents a fundamental shift toward collaboration in higher education institutions. 

6. Increasing Inclusivity

Each individual student who enters higher education has a background that influences their learning. Students from privileged backgrounds often find it easier to transition to the demands of higher education. In contrast, students from less privileged backgrounds may require more support to receive equal access to different resources and experiences. 

Assessment findings can provide valuable information on which groups of students are leveraging the resources at their disposal and which may be falling behind. This data helps to focus educators on closing the gaps and prioritizing furthering their intercultural knowledge to engage with students from diverse backgrounds and create learning experiences that incorporate global affairs and diverse perspectives for students from all backgrounds. Assessments are shifting away from standardization and focusing on allowing various student groups to demonstrate their skills and knowledge to their full potential.

7. Focusing on Processes and Experiences

Focusing on Processes and Experiences

Another significant trend in assessment is a fundamental shift in focus to connect the learning experience with more than just outcomes. High-impact learning practices relate the educational experience with life by focusing on processes, experiences, and results. Improving student experiences means assessing them alongside practices and the environments best suited to learning. 

Integrating high-impact learning practices requires a change in assessment to facilitate quality interaction between students and faculty. It allows faculty members to provide frequent formal and informal feedback to students. In addition, taking assessments beyond outcomes benefits students in all areas of their higher education, shaping experiences and processes to elevate student success. 

Some examples of high-impact practices include:

  • Internships
  • Diversity and global learning opportunities
  • Community-based learning experiences
  • Collaborative assignments
  • Undergraduate research
  • Capstone courses and projects
  • Writing-intensive courses

8. Valuing Authentic Learning Measures

Authentic measures allow institutions to measure a broader range of student learning outcomes, making them a helpful assessment tool for understanding high-impact learning practices. With authentic measures, institutions can go beyond measuring what students have learned and understand how and why they learn. 

Authentic learning requires transparency and collaboration. Students no longer take a passive toll on their own education. Instead, they are active participants in goal setting and collaborate with educators to set beneficial objectives for coursework. In the assessment phase, educators can test student knowledge in realistic environments with high-impact practices instead of relying solely on essays and tests. 

Creating ePortfolios is an effective practice for authentic learning measures, as they allow students to develop and showcase the individual value derived from their learning experiences. 

9. Expanding Access to Career-Related Experiences

Institutions are consistently looking beyond academic achievement. Instead, they focus on readying students for the challenges of entering a successful career. Experiential learning activities are essential for students to make informed career choices and enter the workplace with the required skills and confidence. 

Experiential learning experiences like internships, field-based learning, service learning, and mentored research require a different approach to assessment. Assessment methods will likely go beyond measuring attendance and focus on specific skills to help students clarify career goals and build relevant skills. 

10. Leveraging Learning Models

Although hybrid learning models were gaining traction pre-pandemic, the shift toward online learning and assessment during the pandemic highlighted the benefits of mixing online and in-person learning. New models continue to emerge to support this educational trend, including hybrid flexible — or flex — models that allow students to join physical assessments remotely in real-time. 

Micro-credentials are another significant assessment trend that empowers students to build customized qualifications and skills that match their strengths and chosen careers. In place of linear assessment models, students can combine assessments from different disciplines and providers. 

11. Upgrading Assessment Technology for Data-Driven Improvements

Assessment practices continue to move away from limited and inefficient manual assessments in favor of faster and more secure digital processes. Institutions are no longer asking whether to integrate technology but rather how to integrate it best. Robust assessment technology provides students many opportunities to demonstrate their skills and understanding, and stakeholders expect more frequent insights into student and educator performance. 

Innovative assessment technology gives institutions increasing insights into the needs of each student. Gathering data from students creates an obligation to use that data to drive their success. 

Upgrading Assessment Technology for Data-Driven Improvements

12. Prioritizing Ongoing Professional Development

Ongoing professional development remains vital to creating and sustaining effective assessment processes. As assessment practices change, educators must have the opportunity to understand them. Ongoing professional development opportunities ensure all educators and administrations in an institution have the tools to use innovative assessment practices. Institutions that embrace continuing learning at all levels can look forward to greater consistency in facilitating student success. 

Institutions are likely to integrate more workshops and partnerships to ensure higher technology adoption rates and provide students will all the benefits of assessment methods and technology. Developing the workforce also fosters collaboration and creates cohesive assessment strategies that benefit educators, decision-makers, administrators, students, and the institution itself. 

13. Shifting to Standards-Based Grading

Traditional grading provides students with a letter or number to give them — and their educators — an idea of their overall retention of information and current academic standing. An exciting trend in assessment is a shift away from this one-dimensional paradigm. Students are focusing less on what their grades are, and more on what they know and how they can apply that knowledge. 

When focused more on what students do and don't know, it's more straightforward to identify and correct gaps in their knowledge. Students can progress toward mastery before learning more complex skills and concepts, as progression is based on genuine understanding and readiness and less on a specific grade. Standards-based grading gives students a positive growth mindset they can carry throughout their lives. 

14. Continuing to Innovate

Assessment is the key to student success in higher education. One of the most significant trends to consider is assessment for assessment standards themselves. As the educational landscape changes, institutions will continue to revise what they assess and the methods they choose to boost student success. Trends that evaluate the whole student will continue to evolve, and more effective outcomes could be explored as we develop our assessment methods. 

The Future of Assessment in Higher Education

As assessments continue to change, higher education faces an exciting balance between embracing innovation and personalizing education. More than ever, assessment data will drive student success as institutions can preempt and intervene with struggling students, tailor the learning experience to each student, and drive outcomes that prepare students for successful careers. 

Educators will likely encounter tangible alternatives to conventional systems to engage with students individually and help produce well-rounded and responsive students. Although the shift to technology-driven assessment may encounter some challenges, and assessment work must be valued to ensure consistent improvement, there are significant benefits on the other side of this transition. 

Student assessment will remain focused on elevating the student experience through data, ensuring every student can achieve their academic and career objectives. Although higher education faces challenges, there is much to look forward to as the student journey evolves. 

Using Assessment Trends to Elevate Student Success

The primary goal of assessments is to elevate the student experience and facilitate student success. Higher education institutions have a unique opportunity to balance innovative technology and a personalized approach to ensure students get the most from their educational experiences. The assessment trends above indicate challenges and an exciting future as institutions use data-driven insights to reshape the student experience. 

Institutions are reimagining their future assessment goals, and a robust digital assessment solution like Watermark Planning & Self-Study can help achieve these goals. Request a demo today to learn more. 

Using Assessment Trends to Elevate Student Success

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