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FOCUS - "Assessment Tools for Distance Education" - by Susan B. Millar, Director, University of Wisconsin-Madison LEAD Center

If you are a college instructor who is investing significant effort (and assuming risk) in using innovative technologies in your distance education courses, you surely want to determine whether, and if so why, students are learning better, more, and/or differently as a result of your efforts. You can obtain the answers you seek by using assessment techniques. Assessment refers to faculty efforts to obtain information about how and what students are learning in order to improve their teaching efforts and/or to demonstrate to others the degree to which students have accomplished the learning goals for a course. Whether you wish to assess a distance education or in-class course, assessment entails the following processes:
* articulation of goals;
* specification of the strategies intended to achieve these goals and the reasons that these strategies are expected to be effective;
* agreement on the evidence that will convince specified individuals that the strategies have achieved the goals; and
* the gathering, interpretation, and use of information.

Most faculty are interested in finding assessment methods that are effective but not too time-consuming. The National Institute for Science Education's College Level One (CL-1) team has produced a Web site that presents an integrated and tested set of assessment resources in order to meet this felt need. This site, the Field-tested Learning Assessment Guide (FLAG), is at: It is a "one-stop" resource for faculty who want to ascertain how well their strategies to improve student learning are working. Although the FLAG was designed for science, mathematics, engineering and technology faculty, almost all the assessment methods and tools it presents can easily be used by faculty in any discipline.

The FLAG provides a collection of classroom assessment strategies that rests on a strong foundation of empirical research and has been tested by extensive use in the classroom. The FLAG is designed around Angelo and Cross's concept of "Classroom Assessment Techniques" (CATs). These are self-instructional modules that introduce techniques for assessing progress toward conceptual, attitudinal, and performance-based course goals. Upon invitation by the CL-1 Team, a national group of leading assessment scholars accepted the challenge of developing Cats for their assessment specialties, resulting in a set of twelve CATs that are field-tested and evaluated. The FLAG also includes an introductory primer, an interactive engine that links faculty goals with the most appropriate assessment techniques, and a searchable database of assessment tools, which continues to be expanded.

An assessment instrument located on the FLAG that faculty offering distance education courses may find of particular interest is the one called the "Student Assessment of Learning Gains" (SALG). The SALG instrument uses the Web to offer faculty a quick and easy way to obtain both mid- and end-of-semester feedback from students. The SALG is accessible to anyone with a browser and is offered as a free service.

Faculty interested in exploring a case study that features a faculty member who makes remarkably effective use of assessment should click on the College Level One team's faculty development resource on effective use of learning technology. This resource, Learning Through Technology (LT2), also is at: The case study in which assessment is especially effective is the one focused on Professor Curt Hieggelke's introductory physics courses at Joliet Junior College.

Susan B. Millar, a cultural anthropologist, is director of the Learning through Evaluation, Adaptation, and Dissemination (LEAD) Center at UW- Madison ( The UW-Madison established the LEAD Center in fall 1994 to provide third-party evaluation research in support of educational improvement efforts at both undergraduate and graduate levels. The center has a client-driven and student-focused approach to evaluation research. LEAD clients are faculty or staff at UW-Madison or institutions that are collaborating with the UW. For more information about LEAD Center, visit:


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Last Updated: January 2006