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

Course Assessment - Assessing Discipline Learning

In section 4 we discussed assessing student learning and the grading process. Using graded assignments as assessment tools provides many benefits to students and faculty members. It requires work up front to align grading practices with assessment guidelines for validity and reliability, but has almost immediate tangible payoffs . Remember the classic grading quote?

Paul Dressel (1976) defined a grade as "an inadequate report of an inaccurate judgment by a biased and variable judge of the extent to which a student has attained an undefined level of mastery of an unknown proportion of an indefinite material.” Miller, Imrie, & Cox 1998, p. 24 

Miller, Imrie and Cox argued that,

"To counter Dressel’s criticisms we would need to ensure that the following five expectations are met:

1.      the assessment is based on clearly defined material

2.      the relative contribution of each assessment is weighted according to its relative importance

3.      the same assessment consistently results in the same grade being assigned

4.      the grading procedure conforms to institutional grading policy

5.      it is compatible with standards applied by colleagues." (p. 24)

Classroom-embedded assessment techniques, particularly those that align graded assignments with learning outcomes, motivate faculty because graded assignments become effective assessment tools and provide reliable alternatives to external intrusion and standardized testing (Boud, 1995a; Nichols, 1995; Watson & Klassen, 2003; Wiggins, 1993b). 

Techniques, such as Primary Trait Analysis (PTA) and the development of rubrics, as discussed in Section 4 of this material, link assignments to clearly defined material and student learning outcomes (knowledge, skills and abilities) and identified performance standards shifting grading from a norm-referenced to a criterion-referenced activity. Proper weighting of both the criteria and the assessment in relation to the class require reflective thought by the faculty member.

Reliance upon course embedded tools provides assessment data closest to the hub of learning with a vigorous capability to improve learning outcomes. Acceptance of classroom generated data is always coupled with the warning that assessment methods in the classroom must be designed using valid and reliable methods that target significant learning (Brookhart, 1999; Huba and Freed, 2000). Use the draft checklist (to the right in the resource  section) to determine if your assignment has considered aspects that convert it to a reliable and valid assessment tool.

When grades were tied to student learning outcomes and valid assessment measures they provide several distinct advantages:


The frequency of course embedded elements provide reiterative, formative feedback, a factor lacking in standardized testing.


Students are more motivated to perform their best for a grade.


The variety and flexibility of graded elements represents a fair and broad-based opportunity for students to display what they know or can do.


Embedded course assessment provides a viable, affordable alternative to standardized summative testing.


Classroom embedded assessment makes authentic assessment logistically feasible.


Benefits to students and faculty are often apparent within a semester, producing palpable results, increased faculty adoption and buy-in (Maki, 2002c).

Linking student learning outcomes to grading criteria improves, but does not completely solve, the problem of generalizing grades within multiple sections of single course offerings and between courses (Eder, Walvoord & Anderson, 1998). In order to compare similar sections of one course taught by the same or different professors, or to assess student learning outcomes across a program, additional strategies and collaboration are required.

Simply collating individual course data at the institutional level is unmanageable, for this reason, course data should remain the property of the faculty member. Data are aggregated and interpreted as a single page report for incorporation into program assessment. The aggregated data are more useful to institutional level decision-making, and serve as a buffer to protect individual faculty or students by maintaining the confidentiality of individual results. This will be discussed in Section 6.

Proceed to Curriculum Review

Resources and Links







Try out this brief checklist to double check your graded assessments.

Draft Checklist for a Course Embedded Assessment Tool


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