How to Differentiate Assessment, Research, and Evaluation

Assessment can be tricky work.

Accepting that reality, it can be even more of an uphill battle when folks are confusing terminology and concepts. Aside from referring to a specific classroom instrument or project as an assessment, it’s important to differentiate the commonly related and confusing terms of assessment, evaluation, and research.

I almost learned the impact of these differences the hard way last fall.

I was in the final weeks of preparing a conference presentation on assessment practices for career services, talking in general about approach, as well as sharing some high-level, aggregated data. The red flag was raised one day while hearing updates from our IRB folks.

They casually ended a meeting by reminding everyone, “institutional information intended to be shared at a conference needs to go through the IRB process”. I reached out to explain my situation, hoping I’d be excused from the process. No such luck. I was asked to complete the IRB application and made aware there wouldn’t be a presentation if the board found I did not follow the proper protocol for the effort. After reviewing my IRB application, they concluded the information was aligned with regular (assessment) practice for the area (e.g., not a research project) and did not disclose sensitive subject information. I was free to present at the conference, which was excellent news, as I’m not sure what I would have told my co-presenter from another school if the intended outcome went the other way!

Hopefully, my example helps shed light on how critical it can be to know with which practice you are engaging.

What is the Difference Between Assessment, Evaluation, and Research?

Huitt, Hummel, & Kaeck (2001) differentiate these elements succinctly:

“Assessment refers to the collection of data to describe or better understand an issue…research refers to the use of data for the purpose of describing, predicting, and controlling as a means toward better understanding the phenomena under consideration, and evaluation refers to the comparison of data to a standard for the purpose of judging worth or quality” (para. 2).

While separate, it’s important to acknowledge these elements can play out in tandem or as hybrid practices. Straight (2002) says any measurement of learning can be used either for assessment or evaluation, but some are better for one than the other. McGillin (2003) concurs assessment and evaluation can be expanded into research, and research should lead to better assessment procedures.

Putting Knowledge to Work

Atifa Karim wrote an awesome post called ‘Assessment and the Self‘ articulating how understanding these differences determines the effectiveness can shape your approach to assessment efforts. Beyond yourself, it matters in your practice.

If launching a new event or organization, it’s important to know what data you need to collect for effectiveness (assessment and/or evaluation) or ensuring intended learning is achieved (assessment). If it’s a pilot effort, perhaps specific purposes and hypotheses were asserted and need to be confirmed via data collection (research).

While the classification of your work may not matter, processes do. Research tends to have the strictest implications associated with it, including but not limited to: preparing a formal proposal or research questions, gaining approval from an Institutional Research Board (IRB), and even necessitating a significant size for the data set before being able to report on results.

This matters because data collection on subjects (students or human resources) may need approval in order to be used at all for operational purposes (let alone publishing or presenting). Depending on institutional practices, some degree of IRB approval and systematic process may apply to assessment or evaluation. Typically, assessment and evaluation processes are less stringent or more informal due to being more germane to everyday work. It’s best to check with folks on your campus on institutional practices, though, before you potentially waste time and energy on something you’ll not be able to use.

There could be entirely separate posts on effective practical and examples of practical assessment, research, or evaluation, but just their differences make you knowledgeable enough to be dangerous. If you’re interested in one element over another, dig deeper by reading articles, resources, or case studies of example practices.

Regardless of what path you’re going down, take advantage of the impact on assessment research-related resources on campus like IRB, as well as faculty and staff involved in program evaluation and assessment efforts for assistance and support.

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DISCLAIMER: It is important to acknowledge there are many schools of thought regarding these terms. Please indulge the proposed understandings for this article and always check definitions and associated practices with each of these terms on your own campus.

Joe Levy

About the author: Joe Levy (he/him) is the Executive Director of Assessment and Accreditation at National Louis University. Joe is passionate about data-informed decision making, accountability and promoting a student-centered approach inside and outside of the classroom. Learn how we can help get your students involved.