Departmental or program student learning assessment is an ongoing and systematic process aimed at describing, understanding and enhancing student learning. When departments and programs assess student learning, faculty collaborate

  • to articulate goals for student learning;
  • to develop standards and criteria for determining whether students have achieved those desired goals;
  • to collect data using direct and indirect measures of student learning;
  • to analyze data in order to document and improve student learning.

Assessing student learning benefits faculty, students and the university in several ways:

  • Faculty, who have both the academic expertise and the responsibility, can determine and describe what students in their departments or programs should learn;
  • Faculty can use assessment results to request resources and make program changes that would enhance student learning;
  • Students can often improve their learning when they understand course goals and the ways in which assignments support their achieving those course goals. Students also benefit from understanding academic expectations and the characteristics of strong academic work, which good assessment plans make explicit for students.
  • Niagara University can demonstrate to accrediting bodies, to parents, to prospective employers and to other stakeholders that it has developed a plan for ensuring its graduates possess the knowledge, skills and values consistent with Niagara's academic mission and goals.

Some sources on outcomes assessment distinguish between learning goals and objectives. Other authors and publications conflate the terms. In those instances where sources distinguish between the two, goals describe what faculty members want their students to be by the time the students complete a course or a major program of study.  An example of a goal would be, “Students will be inspired by Niagara's Vincentian mission to work for social justice.”

An objective, on the other hand, describes what students will or should do to indicate they have met a particular goal. An example of an objective would be, “Students will complete three hours of service at a local non-profit institution.” 

Whatever language your department or program uses, your assessment plan must include clear statements about expected student learning outcomes and statements that are clear and specific and coherent within the framework of the departmental and institutional missions. Think of these statements as descriptions of visible and measurable student behaviors, products, or performances. Faculty develop these statements to define operationally what students would need to do to demonstrate they have achieved a desired learning outcome.

When departments frame meaningful and specific goals as explicit descriptions of what students will need to do to demonstrate desired knowledge, skills, or values, departments will likely find that students better understand what is expected of them; also, they will likely find that assessing whether students have achieved particular learning outcomes is easier to accomplish. To illustrate this point, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education publication, Student Learning Assessment: Options and Resources, offers a good example of how to make a goal “students will exhibit proficiency in conducting research” more explicit: “Students will learn the statistical, organizational, writing, and analytical skills necessary to conduct meaningful and valid scientific research” (p. 19).

An assessment plan describes departmental or program desired student learning outcomes, the ways in which the department or program will determine whether students have achieved those desired outcomes, and the process the department or program will use to report and use its findings. 

Assessment plans need not be lengthy or complicated. Using the sample grid provided through the “Sample Forms” link on this site is one way””but certainly not the only way””to begin to develop an assessment plan for your program. Whatever method you use to design your plan, keep these points in mind:

  • Faculty should collaborate to develop the plan and the collaborative process should be described briefly in the plan;
  • The plan should make clear the department or program's mission and goals and their relationship to the university's mission and goals;
  • The plan should detail the assessment method(s) faculty will use to assess desired student learning outcomes and the faculty's reason(s) for choosing those assessment methods;
  • The plan should describe the process and procedures the department will use to communicate and act upon its assessment results;
  • The plan should include a timeline and a list of those responsible for enacting the plan, as well as a list of resources and personnel needed to implement the plan.

Departments can use a variety of direct and indirect methods for assessing student learning, which could yield both qualitative and quantitative data about outcomes. In fact, departments can use many of the tools and strategies faculty already employ to determine how well students are performing in their classes.  OAC advises departments to look first at what direct and indirect assessment tools and strategies are already in place in their programs.

Direct measures, such as exams, standardized tests, evaluations of students' performances (e.g. writing samples, student teaching or internships, research or honors projects) provide useful data which departments can interpret to determine whether students have achieved particular learning outcomes.

Indirect methods, such as students' responses to course evaluations, surveys, or  questionnaires that ask students to report how well they are learning, can provide useful information related to learning. While not sufficient by themselves, indirect methods can help faculty understand students' perceptions, learning processes and their experience of the classroom environment, all of which can affect students' learning.

In Student Learning Assessment: Options and Resources, the Middle States Commission on Higher Learning offers these examples of course-embedded direct measures of student learning: homework assignments and quizzes, essays and case study analyses, observation reports from internship supervisors, rubric or primary trait scores for class presentations, and art or research projects (p. 29). Indirect course-embedded methods could include course evaluations or the number of hours spent engaged in service learning activities.

At the program level, direct measures of student learning could include cooperating teachers' assessments of student teachers' work, senior theses, or students' performance on standardized tests or licensure exams. Indirect measures at the program level could include student satisfaction surveys, graduate school or job placement data and alumni surveys (p. 29).

Each department or program will determine the kinds of qualitative and quantitative data it should gather through both direct and indirect measure. The most important consideration, of course, is whether the methods and the data they yield link logically to the department's desired student learning outcomes.

A rubric is a kind of rating scale that lists criteria faculty use for evaluating student work. Rubrics can be useful assessment tools; you can find several sample rubrics by clicking the “Sample Rubrics” link on this site.

The answer is, “It depends.” Departments can use grades for program assessment if grades correspond directly to specific program outcomes and if grading methods are consistent across faculty and courses. Program assessment process based on these grading methods requires a lot of work and coordination across courses.

In Student Learning Assessment: Options and Resources, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education states that grades alone do not serve as direct evidence of student learning because letter or number grades do not describe “the content of what students have learned” (p. 37).

Consider these complications:

  • Grades can indicate many things about students besides how well they have achieved desired learning outcomes. Grades often also indicate that students attended class regularly, that they put forth good effort, that they completed extra credit projects, and that they participated often in class discussions.
  • Grades in one section of a course may be based upon different standards or criteria from those used in another section.

However, grades can serve as appropriate measures when faculty have taken steps to ensure that a particular course assignment clearly corresponds with an intended objective. More specifically, grades on tests or papers (as opposed to course grades or overall GPA) can be used if they are designed to assess a particular competency in a program. When grades are linked appropriately and directly to desired learning goals, and when grades across sections of the same course are informed by the same standards and criteria, grades could provide strong evidence of student learning.

OAC recommends Walvoord & Johnson's Effective Grading for information about this approach to grading. The approach the authors recommend is very different from compiling course grades from selected courses across the program, or counting the number of courses in which students received passing grades.