Assessment of student learning involves four primary steps that serve as a continuous cycle:
- 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:
- 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.