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Assessment and Evaluation

Finding out how well students have learned is an important part of teaching. While the respective information can be important for assigning grades, the same and other information about student learning can be gathered and used for other important purposes. To do so, it is important to understand the difference between assessment and evaluation.

Assessment and evaluation can focus on teaching and/or learning and they can occur at a rather small scale (e.g., classroom) or a rather large scale (e.g., programs). They differ from each other fundamentally in purpose as can be seen in the following two definitions.


"a set of processes designed to improvedemonstrate and inquire about student learning" (Mentkowski, M. qtd. in Palomba, C. A., and Banta, T. W. (1999). Assessment essentials: Planning, implementing, and improving assessment in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, emphasis added).


"the systematic process of determining the meritvalue and worth of someone (the evaluee, such as a teacher, student or employee) or something (the evaluand, such as a product, program, policy, procedure or process)." (Evaluation Glossary (n.d.). Retrieved December 18, 2007, from Western Michigan University, The Evaluation Center Website, emphasis added).

Assessment and evaluation not only differ in their purposes but also in their use of collected information. While it is possible to use the same tools for the two approaches, the use of the data collected differs. For example, an instructor can use the results of a midterm exam for both assessment and evaluation purposes. The results can be used to review with the students course material related to common mistakes on the exam (i.e., to improve student learning as in assessment) or to decide what letter grade to give each student (i.e., to judge student achievement in the course as in evaluation).


  • Angelo, T.A. & Cross, P.K. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Palomba, C.A., and Banta, T. W. (1999). Assessment essentials: Planning, implementing and improving assessment in higher education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass
  • Walvoord, B.E. (2004). Assessment clear and simple: A Practical guide for institutions, departments and general education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.


Words of Wisdom

  • Ground assessment in educational values & priorities
    Your educational values and priorities should guide your assessment. In other words, assess students' achievement of learning outcomes that really matter to you even if that requires you to go the proverbial 'extra mile' in your assessments. Questions such as "What do I want my students to be able to know, do or be in 5 years from now?" or "How likely am I going to use the assessment findings?" can guide you in establishing your educational values and priorities.
  • Begin with the end in mind
    Clarify the purpose(s) at the beginning of your assessment. Knowing what questions you want to answer and what learning outcomes you want to assess will provide you with needed guidance for what methods and tools to use for gathering, analyzing, interpreting and reporting the data to be collected. Failure to establish your purpose(s) at the beginning is likely to lead to ineffective and inefficient assessment.
  • Involve relevant stakeholders
    Assessment seems to work best when relevant stakeholders are involved in the assessment process. For example, involve faculty in the process of clarifying the learning outcomes for a program, or communicate to your students the findings from your assessments and what changes, if any, you may make in response to the assessment findings.
  • Conduct an assessment audit
    It is common practice for stores to take inventory before they order new items. Knowing the gap between what they have and what they need allows stores to order the 'right' things. This principle also applies to assessment. Once you have decided on your assessment focus, find out if any of your current or past assessments could help you answer your assessment questions. For example, if you want to assess your students' analysis skills, take a look at your existing course exams and assignments and see if any of them already require your students to demonstrate these skills. This can save you time and energy that you might otherwise spend on 'reinventing the wheel'.
  • Triangulate your assessment
    Triangulation is an important part of assessment and it means that you look at a situation from different angles. For example, when you plan your assessments you might want to talk to a colleague who could serve as a valuable sounding board and give you feedback on your assessment ideas. You could also locate and utilize assessment specialists within your academic unit or on your campus. Outside people can also help you with making sense of your assessment data and translating it into action items. Triangulation can also involve the use of different methods for collecting assessment evidence. You could give students a presentation assignment to assess their oral communication skills and you could also ask them to complete a survey that is aimed at eliciting their perception of their oral communication skills.
  • Assess outcomes and processes
    While it is important to assess what your students are learning or not learning, it is also important in your assessment to take a look at the processes and experiences that lead to the desired learning outcome. If you want your students to develop critical thinking skills, don't just assess the degree to which they have those critical thinking skills. You need to also get information related to the activities and materials that you use to help students become critical thinkers. For example, gather students' feedback on the reading materials and in-class discussions that you might employ to facilitate their critical thinking skills. This information might shed light on what helps or hinders students' achievement of the learning outcome and might provide you with guidance for what activities and materials to keep and which ones to change should change be needed.
  • Conduct ongoing assessment
    Good assessment practice reflects the principle that learning is a process that occurs over time. This means that it is important to take multiple pictures of your students' learning instead of just one snapshot. For example, assessments at the beginning of the semester might reveal that students are struggling with identifying underlying assumptions of an argument while assessments later in the semester might reveal improvement or no improvement for students identifying underlying assumptions. No improvement of students' performance over time will probably translate into different interpretation of assessment findings than improvement over time. Ongoing assessment is also reflected in the collection of additional data to shed light on unclear assessment findings and in the collection of data for assessing the impact of changes made in response to assessment findings.
  • Translate your assessment findings into actions for improvement
    Remember that improvement of student learning is a, if not the, main purpose of assessment. Hence, your assessment findings are of little value if you don't translate them into specific actions aimed at facilitating improved student learning where improvement is needed. In other words, don't let your assessment findings collect dust on the shelf but use them to help students better learn what you want them to learn.