Assessing With the Net
Using Technology to Know More About Students
By Tracy Tyree

From the October 1997 AAHE Bulletin


As campuses gain greater electronic capability, technologies such as the Internet and World Wide Web have opened new avenues for collecting and disseminating information about students and assessing their learning. This article highlights several innovative efforts along these lines.


Three Cases

The Web has greatly assisted campus efforts to collect information about and from students, information that is then electronically at the fingertips of the institution. Student Affairs Research Services (SARS) at the University of Colorado at Boulder, for example, uses the Web as a tool to "provide information to administrative and academic units and to others for use in making decisions and taking actions." Among its data-collection efforts, SARS uses its Web page at www.colorado.edu/SARS to administer two of its regular student surveys: One asks seniors about their satisfaction with their educational experience and after-graduation plans, the other has students rate their courses and the faculty.

In a presentation at the 1997 AAHE Conference on Assessment & Quality, SARS senior researcher Ephraim Schechter explained that his campus instituted Web administration of the surveys to motivate students to respond, to save time and money through faster data collection, and to create an automated data entry process.

Schechter reports that data collection via the Web has proven effective, but there are issues for an institution to consider before relying on it to survey students, such as student access to the Web, potential sampling and response bias, technical difficulties, and respondent anonymity.

Schechter also reported that he has linked the SARS Web page with another UC page offering a wealth of information on Boulder's undergraduate outcomes assessment program. At that address (http://www.colorado.edu/outcomes/index.html) visitors find a history of the program, methods it has used, lessons learned, findings and results, and a link to other assessment resources on the Web.

Another institution using the Web in innovative ways is Eastern New Mexico University, this time with the goal of helping faculty learn more about students and their learning. Alex Testa, coordinator of the Assessment Resources Office there, has created a site (http://www.enmu.edu/~testaa/)  that offers information on the university's outcomes assessment plans for academic and noninstructional areas, reports from the university's assessment efforts, assessment and other educational resources, and more.

In particular, Testa's "Cyber Cats" section educates faculty about Classroom Assessment Techniques (CATs) and how they can use CATs to better understand their own teaching and their students' learning. He created Cyber Cats as a way to introduce faculty to the use of CATs through the Web. From the Cyber Cats page, faculty can access information about CATs, take an interactive survey to evaluate their teaching goals, explore ways to administer CATs online, and complete a form to report on the outcomes of their assessment, the effectiveness of their teaching, the relationship between instruction and course goals, and the opportunities for change in their teaching.

As these two Web sites show, the Internet can also be an effective tool for disseminating assessment results to the campus community. As comfortable as most people are with information on paper, it can feel overwhelming to begin an online project. Cel Johnson, director of institutional research at Montana State University, began to tackle such a project in 1995 in preparation for an upcoming accreditation visit. Her approach comes as good advice: Start small and expand over time. Visit MSU's Student Outcomes Assessment site, which includes a program description, an online survey, and links to other Web resources, at http://www.montana.edu/~aircj/assess/ .

Johnson found that the Web offers several advantages in addition to saving paper and time; it allows for access to a broader audience and makes it easier to standardize incoming information, archive information on a regular basis, and expand as new information becomes available.

But she also found that with these benefits come some disadvantages. Because of the dynamic nature of the Web, information seems outdated much more quickly than would published material; thus, a Web page must be revised on a regular basis. Because a Web page is a public display, it can attract unwanted or undesirable attention or feedback. Some faculty, administrators, or other stakeholders may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar with the Web, or they may lack access to it. And finally, to create and maintain a Web page, someone must know or be willing to learn the programming language HTML and other aspects of Web technology.

More Web Sites

The efforts at these three institutions provide an introduction to how the Internet can be used to obtain and report information about college students. Several other Web pages also deserve bookmarking for easy reference, as they provide further information and tools for research and assessment.

Internet Resources for Institutional Research
John Milam, Jr., of George Mason University, created this extensive "homepage of annotated links" to assist institutional researchers and faculty and students in higher education in navigating the Internet. In addition to links, Milam also provides articles, case studies, and other information about using Internet resources for research and planning. For those new to the Web, he explores different types of electronic resources, including listservs, newsgroups, and publications online.

Clearinghouse on Environmental and Student Development Assessment Instruments
This Web site is sponsored by Commission IX – Assessment for Student Development, of the American College Personnel Association. The site is a database of more than 100 assessment instruments; all are described, with information on how to obtain many of the instruments, and extensive reviews and descriptions on some. The instruments are indexed by subject, title, and author and encompass career-related issues, environmental assessment, learning styles, outcome assessments, personality inventories, retention measures, student development, measures of values, and more. (The database is part of the Student Affairs Research Tools Archives below.)

Student Affairs Research Tools Archives
Maintained by Will Barratt in the Department of Counseling at Indiana State University, this Web site "contains material related to student affairs research and assessment" and has many contributors, including ACPA's Commission IX. It provides information on student affairs–related outcomes instruments; links to surveys, research, and assessment and evaluation tools; and access to other research and assessment resources.

Student Affairs Research
Members of the Student Affairs Research team at the University of Texas at Austin use this Web site to share information internally and externally about today's college students. They provide insight to their use of surveys to collect information on students, the design of information systems to help assess student progress, and the publication of reports to assist in the management of services to students. This page also links to many other Web sites that can be useful in conducting research on and assessment of college students. Examples include national reports, institutional and organizational assessment Web sites, sources of assessment instruments, and techniques for presenting assessment data.

Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning
The Principles document is particularly helpful as a framework for thinking comprehensively about assessing college students and their learning in and out of the classroom.

LISTSERVS

Web sites are not the only mechanisms for sharing information using technology. Discussion lists, or listservs, use email to communicate across campus and beyond. Many campuses use internal listservs to share data as it is collected and to communicate changes made as a result of the information. Public listservs provide opportunities to share resources across institutions to enhance the understanding of college students worldwide. Two listservs in particular focus on assessment and student learning:

ASSESS-L
Discussion on assessment issues (both student learning outcomes and student affairs) is active on the ASSESS-L listserv. The list address is listserv@lsv.uky.edu. To subscribe, send the following one-line message to the above address: subscribe assess <your first name> <your last name>

Student Learning
The Student Learning listserv provides a great opportunity to discuss ideas, resources, and information about student learning and development. The list address is listserv@uafsysb.uark.edu. To subscribe, send the following one-line message to the above address: sub sli-l <your first name> <your last name>

The use of information technologies in assessment can provide a variety of benefits, as the examples demonstrate. But the greater service is that in providing information about students and their learning, the new electronic tools can bring together various constituencies for campus decision making, improvement, and change.     

Resource Summary:

UC-Boulder Student Affairs Research Services
ENMU Assessment Resources Office
MSU Student Outcomes Assessment
Internet Resources for Institutional Research
Clearinghouse on Environmental and Student Development Assessment Instruments
Student Affairs Research Tools Archives
Student Affairs Research, UT-Austin
Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning


Tracy Tyree is a doctoral candidate in college student personnel at the University of Maryland, 2118 Mitchell Building, College Park, MD 20742-5221, ttyree@oz.umd.edu. During spring 1997, she was a graduate intern with AAHE's Assessment Forum.



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