Course-embedded assessment: What's it all about?

Course-embedded assessment: What's it all about? one might wonder, thinking that all assessment is somehow embedded in course content. But that is only one aspect of it. Course-embedded assessment also refers to program- or institution-wide assessment that is embedded in all courses in order to focus attention on student learning. Donald Farmer, an architect of course-embedded assessment at King's College in Pennsylvania, writes:

Although many factors contribute to successful student learning, there are two factors that appear to be vital links connecting specific levels of achievement with anticipated learning outcomes. One is to transform students from being passive to being active learners and the other is to make assessment of learning an integral part of the teaching-learning equation. Assessment can play a critical role in developing students as learners if assessment is understood to be formative as well as summative. Assessment best serves as a strategy for improving student learning when it becomes an integral part of the teaching-learning equation by providing continual feedback on academic performance to students. This can be achieved most effectively by designing an assessment model in course work and intended to be both diagnostic and supportive of the development of students as learners. Assessment encourages faculty to focus on the actual learning taking place for students, and to recognize that teaching and assessment are strategies, not goals. (p. 199)

In other words, once an institution forms goals for student learning and develops criteria to measure how student learning outcomes meets those criteria, then colleges, departments, and instructors can develop curricula and activities to help students become active learners, and use assessment to provide feedback both to students and to the institution on how well students are meeting those goals.

Because outcomes and assessment are now discipline- and institution-oriented, curricula can be designed to focus on the development of skills across years and disciplines. For example, when students graduate, what sort of critical thinking skills does an institution want them to have? Then, how should freshman-level courses begin developing critical thinking skills, sophomore-level further that development, and so on? An integrated curriculum can help students better internalize critical thinking by (1) ensuring that it's a goal of all courses and (2) overcoming the compartmentalization and fragmentation of knowledge that occurs when skills are not transferred across years and courses. And flexibility is built in because although the goals are institution-wide, the curricula to obtain those goals are determined by individual instructors and departments.