Program Assessment Frequently Asked Questions
1. What is “assessment of student learning outcomes?”
The assessment of student learning outcomes is the evaluation of what students are learning in your program. The “outcomes” of interest are the goals set for students by your faculty. So simply put, assessment is asking, are students learning what your faculty want them to learn?
2. What is the goal of program assessment?
The goal of program assessment is to evaluate whether students in your major (or minor) are achieving your program learning goals. You should design these evaluations to provide information that you can use in departmental decision-making about courses and curricula. For instance, you could design assessment plans to answer questions such as:
What courses or requirements are working well and should be expanded and/or used to promote our program to more students?
For which learning goals are students not meeting faculty expectations? How should we change our courses or requirements to improve student achievement of these goals?
Are the introductory courses in our major adequately preparing students for subsequent coursework?
Are the courses we offer to students from other majors meeting the needs of those programs?
3. What is a “sustainable” assessment plan?
An assessment plan is sustainable if it can be carried out consistently from one year to the next. The key elements to a sustainable plan are (1) a clear articulation of methods and objectives, (2) a timeline for implementation, and (2) a faculty committee charged with this implementation.
The most common reason that progress in assessment stalls or stops in a department is because the Undergraduate Program Director is the only member of the faculty involved in assessment.
4. Why is there an emphasis on measuring student outcomes “near or at completion” of the program?
For many programs, students are expected to achieve the desired learning outcomes through the cumulative experience of fulfilling program requirements. Therefore, to measure these outcomes, we would ideally like to evaluate students after they meet all, or at least most, of the program requirements. Capstone seminars are a natural place to conduct this type of evaluation.
However, program assessment can be implemented at other points in a curriculum. Some program learning goals map into a particular course requirement. For example, many social science disciplines have goals regarding quantitative analysis skills, and most of the teaching of these skills takes place in one or two courses in the program. These goals could be assessed in those courses.
In addition, in some programs, a defining moment in the student experience is at an earlier stage (like a sophomore methods seminar or an intermediate theory course) and this is a fruitful point to conduct assessment.
5. Why are course grades not assessment?
Course grades often include factors that do not reflect student learning outcomes. For instance, course grades may include penalties for late and missed assignments and class absences. In addition, a course grade is usually a summary measure for how a student performed on several different learning outcomes – concept mastery, writing ability, quantitative analysis skills, etc. To generate information that will be relevant for faculty discussions about the curriculum, it is often more useful to have measures of student performance on each of these outcomes separately.
Assessment, however, does not need to be viewed as completely unconnected to grading. If an instructor gives an assignment that is designed to evaluate student achievement of a particular learning goal, the grades on that assignment can be used as an assessment measure.
6. Why does SAS require that departments file annual reports on program assessment activities?
SAS requires annual program assessment reports because (1) SAS is required to file an annual report on all assessment efforts in the School to the University Assessment Council on Learning Outcomes (formerly the Executive Council on Assessment); and (2) the SAS Office of Undergraduate Education (OUE) wants to support assessment efforts in our programs.
Every March, the Executive Dean of SAS receives a letter from Senior Vice President of Academic Affairs asking for a report on the assessment activities of the School and its departments. This letter is accompanied by a checklist of items that should be included in the report. The form SAS asks departments to complete is based on this checklist.
The SAS OUE also uses the annual program assessment reports as an opportunity to learn more about what types of support departments need to further their assessment efforts, and more generally, their goals for their academic programs. In the past few years, we have added questions to the program assessment forms to get more specific information about data and resource needs and the challenges faced in conducting program assessment.
7. Who reviews the annual program assessment reports?
The initial review is conducted by the dean in the SAS Office of Undergraduate Education who is responsible for assessment. The drafts of responses to departments are then reviewed by the SAS Assessment Committee, which is made up of Undergraduate Program Directors and other SAS personnel involved in assessment. Members of the Committee contribute to these responses, drawing on their own experiences on the ground with assessment.