Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education

Section 1

Section 2
Background and Rationale for Assessment

Section 3
Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)

Section 4
Assessment Tools and Data

Section 5
Course Assessment
What do you assess?
Assessing Curriculum
Course SLO Matrix
Assessing Pedagogy
Assessing Prior Knowledge
Assessing Metacognition
Assessing Outcomes
Curriculum Review
Sample Course Assessment Reports

Section 6
Program Assessment


Section 7
Closing the Loop

Section 8
Implementing Assessment Training on Campus


Section 9
References & Resources



Using Materials from this Website

Assessing Prior Knowledge

Assessing the curriculum and the pedagogy are important, however we know that even the best teacher and best circumstances do not always result in student learning. The next two sections focus on the students, their abilities, engagement, and responsibilities.


Right Arrow Callout: 6.      Introduction and course establishment


Text Box: Assess entering knowledge & relevant misconceptions 

Assessing Entering Knowledge

When reviewing the curriculum in the first step you were asked to look at any pre-requisites for the course you were assessing. In addition to the pre-requisites you should look at other entrance factors. Are any pre-admission assessments applicable to the course, for example, is there a reading level requirement.


Implementing a pre-requisite can be daunting due to the justification requirements and statistical analyses. Institutional Researchers can help simplify this process and the analysis. The resources include a reference to the Academic Senate of California Community Colleges (ASCCC) pre-requisite establishment document. This issue is more important than ever with the increasing number of under prepared students. Should you establish a pre-requisite? If there is a pre-requisite established, how do you know that the students entering your class have the essential skills and knowledge you expected them to have from that pre-requisite experience?

It is relatively easy to create an assessment to measure your students entering knowledge, skills, and abilities. In the Advanced Composition and Critical Thinking class, students write an ungraded, two-page essay for homework after the first class. This reveals the student's baseline skills at MLA format, ability to create a thesis, and expertise in constructing and organizing an essay. At the end of the term this essay is used as a comparative work for the student's final reflective essay and self-assessment. In Microbiology a multiple choice test is used.

Advantages to assessing entering knowledge:


students are notified that prior knowledge is important and linked


class time is more focused having diagnosed entering weaknesses and strengths


students who do not remember, or never mastered pre-requisite skills and knowledge, can now take specific responsibility to repair shortfalls


class activities can be based upon knowledge of student ability, rather than on what the faculty member assumes students can do

Assessing Misconceptions

Students enter our classes with knowledge that pertain to our course from life experiences and courses in other disciplines. Research suggests that it is essential to link outside or past knowledge to coursework to produce deep learning and transferable knowledge (NRC, 2000). Unfortunately, some of the information students arrive with is inaccurate or based on misconceptions, and this can not be simply overlooked.

A study done at Harvard University looked at a major misconception held by many "educated" graduates, even after discipline specific courses should have provided the correct information. The implications are that if the misconceptions aren't specifically identified and corrected, students will revert back to the misconception even after passing exams on the "correct" material. A video was produced displaying this research called A Private Universe. This 20 minute video is available at Annenberg for $39.95 or can be watched online for free. I encourage every faculty member to watch it and every institution to invest in a copy; the website is found in the reference section.

It is quite easy, and somewhat enjoyable, to develop a list of major misconceptions held by your students at your institution by talking with faculty. Some professional associations (Math, Physics, Engineering, Biology, and Astronomy) have identified major misconceptions held by students in that field. The reference section lists websites dealing with discipline specific misconceptions and assessment techniques to identify and correct them, as well as a Stanford reference addressing student service area misconceptions.

Unfortunately, research has shown that simply making the correct information available will not correct, or even modify, the misconceptions. Diagnosing the misconception and making people aware of the inaccuracies requires diagnostic assessment. I have created an anonymous survey for my Microbiology course. It is linked in the resource section. This survey given the first day of class to assess elementary pre-requisite knowledge (pre-requisites include chemistry and a biology course) and self-assessed lab skills. Below the survey link are two years' of data and some interpretive comments to help you determine whether this would be helpful in your course. Included in the Appendix are the Microbiology Background and Misconceptions Survey and Data from the first year.

The next step looks at helping students to look at their own learning strategies.

Proceed to Assessing Metacognition

Resources and Links






ASCCC Pre-requisite Establishment

Model District Policy for Pre-requisites, Co-requisites Advisories on Recommended Preparation and Other Limitations on Enrollment









How people learn: Brain, mind, experience, and school. National Research Council, 2000.


A Private Universe
by Annenberg

Misconceptions list for Science
Beaty, 2000

Hispanic and Anglo Student Misconceptions in Math  Mestre, 2000. ED313192

An in-Your-Face Approach About Student Misconceptions in Astronomy Comins, 2000

Confronting Student Misconceptions in a Large Class Udovic,

Student Misconceptions about Preparing for an Attending College Stanford University

Microbiology Background Survey and Misconceptions

Microbiology Survey Data


Janet Fulks
Assessing Student Learning in Community Colleges (2004), Bakersfield College