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L&S Assessment FAQ: Purpose of Assessing Student Learning

This document attempts to explain - perhaps incompletely - why academic programs must be regularly assessed.

Systematic assessment of student learning produces information that can be put to many uses:

  • to guide curricular planning, from managing course offerings to ensuring that programs reflect the best academic pathway through courses in a given field of study;
  • to help departments and programs evaluate, understand, and improve the overall effectiveness of the academic pathways they have developed to engage and inform students;
  • to provide data that helps the faculty make a case for curricular change, such as revising program requirements, proposing new academic programs, or revising existing programs;
  • to provide consistent types of information gathered over time for a variety of reporting purposes, from the regular review of academic programs, to preparation of alumni newsletters, to conducting self study for program accreditation or certification; and, finally,
  • to meet institutional accreditation requirements.

Although the last of these is often cited - or faulted - as the driving force behind initiatives to assess student learning, the assessment of student learning outcomes has contributed in important ways to essential processes in departments and in the college.

  • When the faculty better understand of student achievement, they are able to reframe curricula and program requirements to ensure that students have access to courses that convey knowledge and skills essential to a field of study.
    • Example:  Assessment data from upper level courses suggested to faculty that their students needed more practice in a particular set of research and writing skills, preferably at an earlier stage of their careers.  The department redesigned all "mid-level" courses to introduce these skills.  Assessment results confirm student improvement.
  • New courses can be developed to meet needs identified by assessment projects.
    • Example:  Several new introductory-level Ethnic Studies courses were created after a campus-wide study of the undergraduate General Education Ethnic Studies Requirement revealed that a large number of students were completing the requirement in their third and fourth years.  A follow-up analysis of enrollment trends revealed that more students now complete the requirement early in their undergraduate careers.
  • Problem areas can be identified and addressed in a timely fashion; more importantly, perhaps, issues identified from year to year can be systematically recorded so fluctuations can be understood and evaluated in a broader, less anecdotal context.
    • Example:  Faculty reports of student performance on writing and research tasks led to a formal assessment of student learning focused on writing in the major.  Though some variation was discovered, the study found that students generally performed better than the anecdotal reports suggested, though few were able to manage a specific research skill.  Upon closer inquiry, the faculty learned that students needed a more formal introduction to the use of a particular set of journal databases.
  • Connections between academic programs (e.g., prerequisite courses) can be adjusted as needs are more clearly identified and refined
    • Example:  A department's investigation into enrollment pressures on an introductory two-course sequence revealed that students who enrolled to meet admission requirements for another program really needed only one semester of instruction to satisfy the requirement.
  • Approaches that don't work can be revised, and new approaches can be tested against existing models. One example of this can be found in the Department of Chemistry's comparison of two methods of instruction for Chemistry 110 (see Wright et al., "A Novel Strategy for Assessing the Effects of Curriculum Reform on Student Competence," J Chem Education 75:8 986-992).

Documentation of learning questions raised and patterns observed helps future generations of faculty and curriculum planners understand and resolve issues that arise, providing a secure foundation for decision-making and, when required, action.

Contact Elaine Klein, Associate Dean for Academic Planning, with further questions
Phone: (608) 265-8484

Keywordsoutcomes assessment, assessment of student learning, Learning Outcomes, LOs, CLOs,   Doc ID25306
OwnerElaine K.GroupL&S KB
Created2012-07-26 16:09:46Updated2023-07-05 16:18:42
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