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L&S Assessment FAQ: How do we create or update our assessment plan?

This document offers general guidance for departments and programs that need to work on their assessment plans.


Since faculty are responsible for academic programs, the observations offered below assume faculty leadership and a high level of faculty participation. We note, however, that it is usually appropriate to include instructional and other staff (and/or students or other stakeholders) in these discussions.  Assessment plans should focus on student learning - but lofty language about a department's aspirations will not ensure the success of a plan.  Viable assessment plans connect to some sort of regular structure or process.  A large department might assign this work to an assessment committee, while another department may assign these responsibilities to the department/program curriculum committee or to a subcommittee of the executive committee.  (Local customs will drive that decision.)  Assessment activity will be likely to persist if it focuses on important questions and produces useful information.  Finally, a short, but active plan, will ultimately be more useful than a long, elaborate plan that sits on a shelf.

Every academic program should have an assessment plan, although "options" and "minors" may not have specifically articulated learning outcomes.  Non-academic or co-curricular program may also benefit from having some sort of plan for measuring success or impact, since what is learned can provide direction for change.

Assessment plans and documents do not replace regular program review; rather, these activities provide the data that informs reviews.  Assessment activities examine student learning in a focused way; program review steps further back and examines the structures and processes (from program requirements to administrative and technical support) in which that learning is expected to occur. 

Creating a New Assessment Plan

  • Review the materials provided on this site about assessment in L&S and at UW-Madison. Feel free to consult assessment plans of other departments, whether here or elsewhere. 
    See, in particular, the documents found here:
  • In drafting a program assessment plan, consider the following questions:
    • Does the plan reflect learning goals and issues that are most meaningful to the program? This is often the most difficult part of the process.
    • Are the goals stated in a way that reflects what the student will get out of the program?  (Instead of the passive-voice, passive student statements that begin, "the program will provide", use active statements about what students know or will be able to do.)
    • Are the goals measurable, to some degree? (Often, the most measurable goals are those that describe students' knowledge or ability to demonstrate specific skills; it's much more difficult to measure "values" or long-distant actions.)
    • Are the strategies intended to measure achievement of the goals well aligned with those goals? Can they be implemented in a regular and reasonable way? Can they be managed within the program's resources (time, funding, knowledge base)?
    • Does the plan assign responsibility for conducting and keeping track of assessment activities?
    • Does the plan ensure that results that are useful, are used?  When results are obtained, are they reported to the groups and people who can use them to effect change, if it's needed? Most often, this will be program faculty in charge of courses and curriculum, but it may also mean communicating with other departments, with the deans, or with campus-level committees and groups.
    • Is there a plan to periodically revisit the plan?

Updating Assessment Plans

Action on this point will depend on how much work needs to be done.
  • A plan that has sound learning goals and a reasonable set of assessment strategies, but which simply hasn't ever been implemented, may not need much updating - though if it has not been implemented, the faculty should look discuss how to develop a sustainable approach to assessment.  It may make sense to scale back the assessment studies, or to schedule them on a different cycle.  (Trying to assess everything, all the time, is seldom successful.)
  • Sometimes an old plan will contain learning goals that reflect an earlier era of scholarship.  It may have an excessive number of goals to be measured, or goals that are not measurable.  It may prescribe assessment strategies that depend on a larger faculty, or that assume a different skill set than the current faculty may have.  It may call for a frequent cycle of studies, or prescribe an expensive standardized assessment tool - in other words, it may require more resources than are available.  In all cases, these problems need to be addressed so the plan aligns with current realities.  The faculty  may need to go back to the first step, and consider the questions asked above, as they relate to revising the old plan. In other cases, the program may simply need to tweak the old plan, updating tools or goals, to fit the current picture.
  • It's important to remember that reevaluating and revising assessment plans to correct what didn't work is an important part of the process.  New and revised plans should include this step, which can help prevent the plan from languishing in the future.

Additional Considerations for Evaluating and Creating Assessment Plans

What constitutes assessment "activity"?  This can be interpreted in a fairly broad way:

  • active projects in which data are being gathered, as when a survey is in the field;
  • gathering data for future analysis, as when portfolios are collected for several years, to be reviewed at a later date;
  • preparing reports and interpreting results;
  • departmental discussion of assessment results and reports;
  • consideration of follow-up actions (including additional assessment);
  • awaiting approval of curricular revisions resulting from assessment (new courses proposed, approval of changes to degree programs);
  • implementation of changes resulting from assessment; and
  • waiting for changes to take effect, so they can be re-assessed

Assessment activities fall into a multi-year cycle of activity.

 Focus  Year 1
 Year 2
 Year 3
 Year 4
 Year 5
 Year 6
 Learning Outcome 1
Plan and Field study
Evaluate Results Implement Gather follow up data
Revisit plan
 Learning Outcome 2
  Plan and Field study Evaluate Results Implement Gather follow up data Monitor, revisit plan
 Learning Outcome 3
    Plan and Field study Evaluate Results Implement Gather follow up data, revisit plan

In evaluating stalled assessment plans, we encourage programs to try to identify pitfalls so they can be avoided. A few of those pitfalls are outlined here.

  • Lack of importance. Assessment activities will seem like busy work if the people involved are measuring student learning in areas that are unimportant or not really relevant to the program. In re-examining the assessment plan, don't be afraid to ask whether the learning goals are still appropriate.
  • Wrong tools for the task. It's hard to measure some types of learning goals, and sometimes plans falter because the tools are not well-suited to the goal. For example, asking students in a survey if they can identify the features of a sonnet may produce very different result than asking students to do so on an exam; similarly, it is hard to gauge how students feel about poetry from a multiple choice test (a survey would be a better tool). 
  • Time constraints. Assessing student learning takes time; some programs might do more by doing less, scaling back ambitious projects.  Consider how to make your assessment program sustainable: does it make sense to focus attention on one learning goal at a time, instead of all of them? Does it make sense to alternate the use of particular assessment tools, instead of trying to use several tools on one project? Does it make sense to use random sampling strategies to look at a portion of the materials gathered, instead of looking at them all?  It may help to remember that assessment is concerned with student performance at a less detailed level than the level involved in grading students. The goal of assessment is not to assign grades to each student's performance, but to see how the sum total of students' performances reflect on the program as a whole.
  • Disconnects. Sometimes, some assessment activities become disconnected from other assessment processes to which they're related.  If you're gathering materials, remember to set aside time to evaluate them.  If you've got the time scheduled to evaluate, make sure you have something to work with. To the extent possible, regularize assessment activities.  Identify a specific person or group to oversee assessment activities, try to establish a clearinghouse for sharing information about assessment, schedule regular reports to the executive committee. One simple rule:  make sure the Department/Program Chair has an assessment file - and make sure the program administrator knows where it is!
  • Difficulty prioritizing. Though assessment efforts usually lead to suggestions for change, consider whether or not the program benefits from being tweaked every time program data arrives. Keep the issue of scale in mind: if exit interviews reveal that most students complained about instruction in a particular area, it makes a difference whether 3, 30, or 300 students were in the sample - it may be a better idea to follow up with a survey to validate results before changing the program. Similarly, the responses of a highly vocal participant in a focus group can generate results that may need to be taken with a grain of salt. For these reasons, we recommend using a variety of assessment strategies that can be used to validate each other. When in doubt, use the learning goals as a touchstone to remember what is important.
  • Lack of impact.  Conversely, remember that thoughtful consideration about what you know students are learning should lead to suggestions about how that might be improved.  If a problem is clearly indicated - and validated as real - report it to the groups who are most likely to be able to fix it.
  • Failure to celebrate success.  When assessment results are good, tell everyone - include the information in departmental self-studies, contact your assessment council representative (of course, you may be asked to give a panel presentation), send the dean a report. 

As this list suggests, successful assessment plans are thoughtfully crafted to align well with the unit's priorities, goals, and resources. 

See Also:

Keywords:assessment of student learning, outcomes assessment, assessment plan, assessment report   Doc ID:25297
Owner:Elaine K.Group:College of Letters & Science
Created:2012-07-26 11:10 CDTUpdated:2015-12-29 12:13 CDT
Sites:College of Letters & Science
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