Assessment, Research, and Ethics

This was originally posted at SA-Exchange, but the site has since shut down and so it is now posted in its entirety here.

by Noah D. Arney, Mount Royal University

This Research, Assessment & Evaluation series is brought to you by the CACUSS Research, Assessment, Evaluation Community of Practice.

The idea for this post came from a colleague of mine who was telling me about a new project he had implemented. He explained why he and another colleague had designed the project, what they wanted to do with it, how the roll out happened, what he saw happen based on the one on one interviews he was doing with students, what he thought that meant, and how he changed the program as a result of it. Then he told me how he didn’t feel he had remembered to assess it.

He had, of course, assessed the roll out, and then utilized that information to improve his practice. What he meant was that he hadn’t conducted research on the project. I suspect a lot of student affairs practitioners have similar thoughts, that our assessment needs to be done at the level of academic research.

He also shared with me that he didn’t think he could really do research because he didn’t know what the ethical boundaries were around it.

This post then is going to try to give a very brief overview of what the distinction between assessment and research is, why that’s important, and what the ethical boundaries are, finally leaving you with some questions to ask yourself about ethics and assessment.

Assessment vs. Research

Assessment is a major topic for student affairs and has been since the early 90’s (Hoffman, 2015). To quote Lesley D’Souza “Assessment starts with curiosity; wondering if the work you do all day is actually making a difference” (D’Souza, 2015). Assessment is a method of seeing the usefulness of practices and guiding the practitioner to more useful practices (Upcraft & Schuh, 2002).

Research, and by research I specifically mean scholarly research, is a method of testing theories in a “rigorous, replicable” method (Suskie, 2018, p. 11). The goal of research is to prove or disprove theory or to guide theory (Upcraft & Schuh, 2002). 

  1. Lee Upcraft and John H. Schuh’s Assessment Vs. Research: why we should care about the difference, explains the core difference succinctly: “Assessment typically has implications for a single institution, whereas research typically has broader implications for higher education” (Upcraft & Schuh, 2002, p. 17). While student affairs assessment does borrow a great deal from social science research, it is a distinct thing both because of its goal and because of its use.

To learn more about assessment in general, see the series SA-Exchange ran a few years ago called Assessment and You:

Something to remember is that you don’t need to be doing scholarly research to be assessing. Instead, you should try to keep your assessment in proportion to what is being assessed (Suskie, 2018). If you are assessing a one hour workshop, you don’t want to be spending weeks ensuring your findings are replicable, or “determining the psychometric properties of assessment instruments” (Upcraft & Schuh, 2002), but instead you should be taking your findings and determining what the next steps are to directly improve your practice.

Assessment Ethics

Just because assessment is different from research doesn’t mean that you can ignore ethical principles (Schuh, Biddix, Dean, & Kinzie, 2016, p. 51). The key ethical concepts that are part of research need to also be part of assessment. Assessment in Student Affairs, by John H. Schuh, J. Patrick Biddix, Laura A. Dean, and Jillian Kinzie, outlines the key parts for us (p. 55-59):

  • Respect for Persons: ensure those part of the assessment have “the right to free choice”, privacy, and “informed consent”;
  • Beneficence: ensure the assessment is for the benefit of those being assessed and does not harm those assessed, part of this is ensuring the privacy of those part of the assessment;
  • Justice: ensure that participants are treated fairly in all ways, especially in that whatever is promised or implied to subjects of an assessment must be carried out.

In Student Affairs Assessment: Theory to Practice, by Gavin W. Henning and Darby Roberts, this is simplified to:

  • Respecting autonomy;
  • Doing no harm;
  • Benefiting others;
  • Being just;
  • Being faithful.

In our assessment work these aren’t onerous things. Most of them are accomplished by being honest with the students, staff, and faculty we work with and who take part in the programs we run, and treating them as partners in our work. 

A starting point you may want to use is to look at the ethics applications your home institution uses. Reviewing it may give you some ideas for what you should consider when developing assessment, or help you to think more about things like accessibility and data management.

The two ethical questions I want close with for you to think about are:

“How do we tell when the assessment itself is in some way harming someone?”

“Who are the partners with us in assessment, and what do they get out of it?”


D’Souza, L. (2015, September 30). What is Assessment? Retrieved from SA-Exchange:

Henning, G. W., & Roberts, D. (2016). Student Affairs Assessment : Theory to Practice. Sterling, Virginia: Stylus Publishing, LLC.

Hoffman, J. (2015). Perceptions of Assessment Competency among New Student Affairs Professionals. Research & Practice in Assessment, 46-62.

Schuh, J. H., Biddix, J. P., Dean, L. A., & Kinzie, J. (2016). Assessment in Student Affairs. San Francisco: John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated.

Suskie, L. (2018). Assessing Student Learning: a Common Sense Guide. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Upcraft, M. L., & Schuh, J. H. (2002). Assessment Vs. Research: Why We Should Care About the Difference. About Campus, 16-20.

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