Research & Evaluation FAQs

What are assessment, evaluation, and research, and what distinguishes them from one another?

The terms assessment, evaluation, and research are often used interchangeably in the field of education, and there is no single accepted definition of what each term means. We know that all three terms refer to the systematic gathering, analysis, and interpretation of information (“data”), but the intended purpose of this data gathering differs.


Assessment has been defined as:

  • “The systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development.” (Palomba & Banta, 1999)
  • “The process of gathering and discussing information from multiple and diverse sources in order to develop a deep understanding of what students know, understand, and can do with their knowledge as a result of their educational experiences; the process culminates when assessment results are used to improve subsequent learning.” (Huba & Freed, 2000)

Assessment can be used to provide individual students with feedback on their own learning process. To learn more about this, check out our Teaching & Learning team’s page, Assess Student Learning.

Assessment can also be used to make larger course-level and curricular improvements to the student academic experience. These are the types of assessment projects that our Research & Evaluation team work on.


Evaluation is often described as going beyond assessment to involve a judgment of merit, worth, or value and to inform key decisions (Scriven, 1991).

  • Evaluators use assessment information to make a judgment, often based on whether the actual outcomes of an intervention, class, or program match the intended learning outcomes (Suskie, 2010)
  • Program evaluation has been defined as “the identification, clarification, and application of defensible criteria to determine an evaluation object’s value (worth or merit) in relation to those criteria.” (Fitzpatrick, Sanders, & Worthen, 2004)
Finally, research involves the creation of generalizable or transferable knowledge. When conducting an assessment or evaluation, the goal is to inform educational practices and policies within a specific learning context. When conducting research, the goal is to create and share knowledge about educational issues, practices, or policies that are relevant in a wide range of contexts.

Why should I do an assessment or an evaluation?

Whether you are just starting to design a new class or program, are implementing pedagogical changes in an existing class or program, or want to evaluate the outcomes of an established class or program, you can gather and interpret data to guide your thinking and decision-making.

Assessment and evaluation can be used to

  • Identify the needs or “gaps” between a course or program’s desired and actual outcomes (needs assessment).
  • Identify the strengths and resources that can be used to support student learning and success within a given context (strengths-based or asset-based assessment).
  • Assess the effectiveness of a new educational practice, course, or program (program evaluation).
  • Identify factors that support or inhibit student learning and success in a given context.
  • Examine inequities in students’ access to high-quality educational experiences.
  • Track progress toward attaining course- and program-level outcomes.

And more!

Do I need human subjects research approval from COUHES to conduct an assessment, evaluation, or research project?

Research projects that are aimed at contributing to generalizable knowledge and that involve human participants, or data collected from human participants, will generally need to receive approval or exemption from MIT’s Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects (COUHES).

Some, but not all, assessment and evaluation projects do not need human subjects research approval from COUHES. To learn more about these definitions and guidelines, visit the COUHES definitions webpage.

It is important to determine whether you need to apply for COUHES approval before you engage in any recruitment or data collection efforts. There are several different levels of COUHES review that a project may go through, depending on the research procedures, the population, and the level of risk involved. TLL’s R&E team can work with you and COUHES to determine whether a particular project needs approval and to guide you through the process of requesting approval if necessary.