Assessment of student learning involves four primary steps that serve as a continuous
- Develop clearly articulated learning outcomes.
- Provide purposeful opportunities for students to achieve those learning outcomes.
- Assess student achievement of the learning outcomes.
- Use the results to improve teaching and learning.
1. Developing Learning Outcomes
Learning outcomes – sometimes referred to as learning goals or objectives – exist
to identify what students will know, think, or be able to do as a result of a learning
experience. Learning outcomes can exist for programs and experiences both in and out
of the classroom. Huba and Freed (2000) state that effective outcomes:
Generally speaking, learning outcome statements should include the following:
- Are student-focused
- Focus on what is learned rather than how it is learned
- Reflect the institution’s mission and the values it represents
- Align at the course/program, department, divisional, and institutional levels
- Identification of who is doing the learning (e.g., students)
- The knowledge or skill that will be learned (e.g., apply the scientific method)
- The experience in which the learning will occur (e.g., the course)
Of particular importance is the specificity of the knowledge or skill expected to
be achieved. Programs or departments may choose to write broad learning goals, but
more specific outcomes that break down the goal into measurable components would also
be necessary in order to allow for assessment. For example, a broad, program-level
learning outcome stating that "Graduates of this program will be able to communicate
effectively" is too broad to be assessed. In contrast, a corresponding learning outcome
for a course in that program stating that “Students in Senior Capstone courses will…”
is specific enough to be assessed.
One way to ensure that learning outcomes are specific is to make sure that they answer
the question "What does that look like?" or "How is that defined?" when stating the
knowledge or skill. Using the example above, the question would be "What does effective
communication look like?" From there a breakdown of the concept of "communication"
can lead to outcomes pertaining to each of the various aspects of communication (e.g.,
written, oral, and listening skills).
The domains of Bloom's taxonomy, particularly the cognitive domain, are a good resource for specifying the intended
behavior in a learning outcome. Because each level builds on the preceding level,
it is important to give students adequate opportunity to reach the more complex levels
of learning. For example, in foundational coursework the primary outcomes may focus
on acquiring knowledge in a field, while outcomes in advanced courses may focus on
evaluation or creation of knowledge.
2. Providing Opportunities for Learning
Once the intended learning has been identified, the next step is to determine the
circumstances under which students will be able to learn the knowledge or skills.
For academic departments, this is often addressed through aligning specific courses
in the curriculum with specific learning outcomes. Departments in Student Affairs
also need to be purposeful regarding the learning experiences they provide for students
in order for there to be ample opportunities for the intended learning to occur. This
can be achieved through aligning programming and leadership experiences with specific
learning outcomes. In all cases it is important to be intentional with regard to matching
the learning experience with the intended outcome(s).
3. Assessing Learning Outcomes
Due to the nature of learning outcomes, it is essential to utilize direct methods of assessment in order to have evidence of learning. Direct methods of assessment
measure actual student learning; they do not rely on measurement of self-reported
learning or satisfaction with learning experiences. Also consider . . .
Assessing multiple learning outcomes with one method:
- Often not a 1:1 relationship; one method can usually be used to assess learning
for several outcomes. For example, a student's portfolio may serve as evidence for
several learning outcomes.
Using multiple methods to assess one learning outcome:
- Look for same results across multiple data collections
- Build upon or relate results from one assessment to another
- Use data from one method (e.g., a test) to inform another method (e.g., a rubric)
4. Using the Assessment Information
Assessment is often considered "done" after data collection has ended. In order for
assessment to serve its purpose, however, the data collected needs to be reviewed,
discussed, and disseminated as appropriate. More importantly, actions that will be
taken as a result of the data should be identified and implemented. These changes
should then be assessed, leading to continual cycles of assessment and improvement
of educational practices, a process often called "closing the loop."
Assessment of Student Learning and Accreditation
Standard 14 of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE)'s accreditation
standards is dedicated to the assessment of student learning. The four steps above
outline what they consider the "teaching-learning-assessment" cycle. Further information
specific to MSCHE's expectations regarding this standard can be found here.
Huba, M. E. & Freed, J. E. (2000). Learner-centered assessment on college campuses: Shifting focus from teaching to learning. Boston: Allyn & Bacon.