The Importance of Assessment in Psychology Education

Why measuring learning is different than just taking tests.

Posted Jul 15, 2018

For many years now, psychology educators have been concerned about the assessment of teaching and learning in the college classroom. The goal of educational assessment generally is to demonstrate that students have learned particular concepts or skills and, ideally, can apply them to novel situations or problems. Assessment, then, is not about showing that a student can memorize facts or term; rather, it is about highlighting what students know and, more importantly, don’t know. In other words, assessment identifies areas of classroom teaching that are working well while also focusing on those topics that need to be taught a different and perhaps better way.

Assessment is a form of accountability. Various stakeholders—such as trustees, provosts, deans, parents, and students themselves—want some convincing evidence that the desired learning is occurring. An exam is a course like introductory psychology can represent an assessment of the material that students read and discussed in class, say, the course content dealing with the brain and its effects on behavior. So far, so good.

But if we apply a wider lens to the task of assessment, we can ask a question like, “What are the fundamental skills a psychology major should master as an undergraduate and be able to use in the future?” When assessment is framed in this way, then we can focus on key concepts that are taught and applied in a variety of psychology courses—from introductory psychology to a capstone seminar. Ideally, such concepts can be applied later, whether in a career, graduate school, or in daily life. The current concern over “fake news” or the inability of some citizens to recognize when a source of information is reliable or unreliable—true or false—is a serious concern and quite relevant to assessment.

What are some psychological ideas that transcend the course and the classroom? Clearly, much of what students learn in research methods is highly important to designing psychology experiments that demonstrate the validity of a hypothesis while elucidating what cause leads to what effect. So, research design, the manipulation and measurement of variables, the statistical analyses of the data—all these familiar concepts which are introduced in introductory psychology and are then reinforced and elaborated in virtually all subsequent classes are assessment worthy. Why? Because these concepts can be used to create a research question and then conduct a study to answer it, just as knowing them will enable students to read and understand the psychological literature found in professional journals. Of course, such concepts will also be used to evaluate what is presented in the media in terms of televised news or newsprint—and in everyday conversations with colleagues, friends, and neighbors. Research methodology is one area that is ripe for assessment—there are many others.

So, assessing these skills is an important exercise that goes far beyond the content of the typical quiz or test. In short, the average psychology major may forget the function and location of the hippocampus in the brain, but more general knowledge of neuroscience and the research methods used to study the brain are more likely to be retained. However, unless educators use assessments to routinely verify this and other assumptions, we really don’t know. For this reason, psychology faculty members have been at the forefront of the assessment movement: They want to know that students know what they are supposed to learn about and from the discipline.

References

Dunn, D. S., McCarthy, M., Baker, S., Halonen, J. S., & Hill, G. W., IV. (2007). Quality benchmarks in undergraduate psychology programs. American Psychologist, 62, 650-670.