At an institution like Geneseo, where faculty and staff care deeply about their jobs, continuous improvement is naturally a goal of every program and every office. But the path to this goal is not always clear. Improvement means change, but not all change means improvement. In looking at the structure of an academic program or the processes of a campus office, we need to distinguish that which works from that which needs work. We need a way to separate outcomes and methods we should retain from those we should revise or re-envision or even - now and again - discard.
There is certainly no perfect way to do this, but outcomes assessment is at least a rational way. Its purpose is to supply more or less impartial evidence about the results of activities in programs and offices. Are students, for example, learning what we want them to learn?
We can begin to answer this question only after we have thought through and articulated with some precision just what we expect our students to learn. Indeed, some faculty find that the most valuable part of assessment is the initial formulation of Learning Outcomes, a formulation that, if properly conducted, necessitates searching examination by colleagues of their common enterprise as teachers and scholars in a particular discipline.
The information yielded by assessment opens the possibility for rational discussion about change. If students haven't learned everything we want them to learn, perhaps it is time for change - to the content of courses, to our methods of teaching, to our expectations themselves, or to some combination of these.
Assessment can't generally determine what changes we should make, but it can tell us if the changes we do make make a difference, enabling further rational discussion, additional trials, in many cases additional errors, but success that, when it happens, we can document and likely repeat.
The assessment process, then, is by necessity circular: evidence about outcomes provokes discussion, discussion leads to change, change is tested by new evidence to determine whether it represents improvement, new evidence provokes further discussion, and so on.