What is Learning Outcomes Assessment?

“Assessment is the systematic collection, review and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development” (Palomba and Banta, 1999).

This section covers three topics:

Categories of Assessment

Assessment of student learning occurs at three levels: institutional-level, program-level, and course level. The resources provided on this website primarily cover program-level assessment. For assistance with course-level assessment, see the Center for Innovation in Teaching and Learning.

Getting Started with Assessment

When selecting a place to start, start small. Many already feel stretched thin in their day-to-day roles. Assessment can feel like an add-on to already full plates, particularly for those who are learning the skills as they go. Be sure to engage others in the process. The learning outcomes for a unit should represent the goals of the entire program.

  • Step 1: Identify a limited number of learning outcomes for your program
  • Step 2: Create a plan for which one or two of those learning outcomes you would like to explore and what data you will need
  • Step 3: Collect data. You may already have student work from projects or papers. If so, that’s a good place to start. If you don’t already have student work products, you may want to consider different types of indirect and direct evidence that you can collect.
  • Step 4: Analyze the data to see how the students are meeting the outcomes
  • Step 5: Use the evidence you collected to confirm the quality of the program or to make changes for improvement
            • Learning Goals

              Learning goals describe broadly the most important things you want students in your program to learn upon completion (e.g. acquisition of specialized knowledge, problem-solving skills, communication skills). Learning goals could encompass knowledge, skills and attitudes. Having a clearly-defined set of program-level learning goals is the starting point for having an effective assessment plan.Below are some guidelines for writing effective learning goals.

              If your program has existing learning goals, it is a good idea to review those with reference to these guidelines:

              • A program-level learning goal should be measurable with reasonable effort. In other words, it should be feasible to collect accurate and reliable data to assess the attainment of a learning goal with a reasonable amount of time and resources.
              • An effective learning goal should be written in clear terms with action words
              • An effective learning goal should neither be too broad nor too specific

              Learning objectives are more detailed than learning goals and describe how students can demonstrate achievement of learning goals. As with learning goals, the learning objectives could be encompass knowledge, skills and attitudes.

              A learning objective is comprised of three parts:

              • Behavior: describes what students will be able to do
              • Condition: describes the conditions under which the student will be able to demonstrate the behavior
              • Criteria: describes the criteria for evaluating student behavior

              Guidelines for writing effective learning objectives:

              • Learning objectives should reflect a clear understanding of the goals of the program
              • A learning objective should be directly observable
              • A learning objective should be specific
              • An effective learning objective should be written in clear terms with action words
            • Assessment Plans

              The Council for Learning Outcomes Assessment (C-LOA) has provided a template to be used to outline the assessment plans for the programs, which you can download here. Assessment plans should include the learning goals and objectives, the learning experiences and strategies that students will engage in to meet the learning objectives, the assessment methods or strategies, the processes to analyze the assessment information, and the decisions that will be made at the end of the assessment.

              Curriculum maps are often used to help organize the assessment plans. Curriculum maps allow for the faculty to connect the learning goals with the required courses and activities for all students.

              Guidelines for writing effective assessment plans:

              • Assessment plans should be driven by the faculty’s interests in student learning
              • Assessment plans should be linked to the curriculum and result in usable information
              • Assessment plans should have realistic aims and timelines
              • Assessment plans should outline the learning objective, identify the assessment strategies, and share the time frame for the assessment work
            • Assessment Strategies

              Assessment of student learning can either be direct or indirect. Direct methods for assessment of student learning includes directly observable evidence (e.g. examination scores). Indirect methods of assessment of student learning are alternative indicators that are not directly observable.  Direct and indirect assessment methods complement each other when the results of one method is interpreted in context of findings from the other.

              Example of direct and indirect evidence of student learning at the course and program level are presented below.

              Direct Methods of Assessment of Student Learning Indirect Methods of Assessment of Student Learning
              ●      Course-embedded assessments

              ●      Examination scores

              ●      Projects

              ●      Portfolios

              ●      Ratings of student performance

              ●      Student ratings of learning progress

              ●      Student job placements

              ●      Student admission rates in graduate programs

              ●      Student participation rates in the research, conferences, and other relevant academic activities

              ●      Alumni surveys

              ●      Retention and graduation rates

              While a program is comprised of courses, accreditors expect programs to be evaluated independently. However, course-level assessments can also inform program-level assessment to some extent. Consider for example when student learning is assessed in a course, various assessments are aligned with the course-level learning objectives. These course-level learning objectives are linked to the program-level learning goals. A sample of student work can be assessed using a rubric, thereby yielding direct evidence of student learning at the course and program level. This exercise can be conducted for a sample of courses across areas within the program so as to cover diverse set of program-level learning goals. While this process could be time consuming, it yields direct evidence of student learning.

              Note that final grades do not fulfill assessment of student learning outcomes, instead they are an overall evaluation of student achievement. Grades cannot effectively inform the program about how well students are meeting the specific learning objectives.

              Guidelines for effective assessment strategies:

              • Assessment strategies should clearly connect to the student learning objectives
              • Assessment strategies should provide the data necessary to answer whether students are meeting the learning objective
              • Assessment strategies should be managed to not be overly burdensome for the faculty engaging in the assessment
              • Assessment strategies should include ways to analyze and interpret the data
            • Understanding and Using Assessment Evidence

              Assessment evidence is the information that was gathered from the assessment strategies that support to some degree whether students are meeting the learning objectives for the program. Before gathering evidence, programs should consider how the information will be used. Guidelines for effective use of assessment evidence:

              • Assessment evidence will best be used if it directly connects to what a program wants to know about its program
              • Assessment evidence should be linked with program objectives
              • Assessment evidence should be shared with the program faculty
              • Assessment evidence should be used to guide curricular modifications
              • Assessment evidence should NOT be used out of context; for example, to evaluate a faculty member
              • Assessment evidence may be shared in a variety of ways with students and alumni or for grant proposals and publications

    Tools for Assessment

    Many programs will create their own tools for assessment that directly connect to the program learning goals. Examples of possible tools as well as  campus tools and national tools are listed below.

  • Program Tools
    Capstone courses/projects: Many programs expect students to complete capstone courses/projects. These courses are a good way to assess whether students meet program learning goals.

    Exams/Standardized Tests/Pre and Post Tests: Some disciplines have standardized tests that may be used to assess students program level learn. Programs may also have designed comprehensive exams or tests that allow the program to see what students know.

    Student Papers: Students’ papers can be gathered at different points to examine students’ mastery of specific objectives and writing skills.

    Student Presentations/Performances: Students presentations can be observed to better understand the students oral presentation competency and mastery of certain skillsets.

    Team Projects: Students’ interactions as a team can be observed as a way to examine effective team leadership. Students can also assess each other on effectiveness on a team.

    Transcript analysis: Students transcripts can be analyzed to identify patterns in course taking and grades.

  • Campus Tools
    Chancellor’s Senior Survey:  All senior students are asked what activities they participate, what they learn during their time on campus, how comfortable they are on campus, and how satisfied they are with their experiences.

    First Destination Survey: All graduating students are asked about their next steps after graduation, such as employment, graduate school, volunteering.

    Illinois ePortfolios: Students, who want to create an ePortfolio, have the opportunity to use the Illinois ePortfolio system. Programs may use the ePortfolio for assessing student learning.

    Campus Profile: Items from the campus profile may be included as indirect evidence of student learning. For instance, information on student retention and graduation rates can be examined.

  • National Tools
    AAC&U VALUE Rubrics: Rubrics created by teams of faculty and professionals on such areas as critical thinking, teamwork, and written communication.