You may have heard the terms “assessment” and “research” used interchangeably. Are they really the same thing? Does it matter? (And that doesn’t even include throwing “evaluation” into the mix!) There have even been recent debates among professionals about it. (<a href=”http://www.presence.io/blog/assessment-and-research-are-different-things-and-thats-okay/”>http://www.presence.io/blog/assessment-and-research-are-different-things-and-thats-okay/</a>, <a href=”https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/11/21/how-assessment-falls-significantly-short-valid-research-essay”>https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2016/11/21/how-assessment-falls-significantly-short-valid-research-essay</a>, <a href=”https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/abc.21273″>https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/abc.21273</a> )
In my opinion, assessment and research have a lot in common. They are about collecting data to learn something, they use similar data collection methodologies (qualitative and quantitative), they require knowledge and practice to be effective, and they are important to student affairs and higher education. There are expectations of good practice in both areas.
On the other hand, there are some key differences. The purpose of research is to create generalizable knowledge, that is, to be able to make credible statements about groups of people beyond one campus. It might be about first year college students, new professionals in student affairs, or college graduates in STEM fields. Research may also be used to develop new theories or test hypotheses. Assessment is typically confined to one program, one campus, or one group. In that case, the purpose is to collect information for improvement to that particular area of interest. Assessment rarely would set up an experimental design to test a hypothesis. The results are not meant to apply to a broader area, but they are key to decision making. Assessment can provide reasonably accurate information to the people who need it, in a complex, changing environment.
The timing of research and assessment may differ. Research may have more flexibility in the time it takes for data collection because it may not be tied to one particular program, service, or experience that will change. Alternatively, assessment may be time bound, because the information is being collected about a particular program or service, so changes can be implemented. It may be an event that occurs on an annual basis, information is needed for a budget request, or data needs to be provided for an annual report.
The expectations of response rate may also be different. Of course, everyone wants a high response rate that reflects the population of interest. Realistically, though, that may not happen. In research, there may be more effort and resources to recruit respondents over a longer time or use already collected large data sets. There may be effort to determine if late responders were similar to early responders or if more recruitment needs to happen. In assessment, partially because of the time-bound nature, and the over-assessment of college students, staff may have to settle for the response rate they get and decide if the results are credible.
The audience may also differ. Ideally, all professionals should be keeping up with the literature in their field based on sound research. Research results are published in journals for other researchers to see and use. More narrow, though, assessment provides (hopefully) useful information to decision makers and practitioners about their particular area. In the big picture, assessment results can inform research questions and vice versa.
Research typically requires Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval, before collecting data from “human subjects.” That board wants to ensure that people are not harmed and appropriate processes are followed. Because of the narrow focus, and usually low risk nature, assessment is typically excused from the IRB process.
All in all, both assessment and research belong in student affairs and higher education. They are important to individual campuses and departments. They just may look a little different in the structure and use. Practitioners need to access both to be the best they can be.