Assessing Student Learning in Higher Education

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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

Section 6
Program Assessment
Setting the Stage
Defining Programs
Program SLOs
General Education Programs
Program Assessment Tools
Homegrown Program Assessment Tools
Program/Course Matrix
Program Review and Program Assessment
Sample Program Assessment Reports

Section 7
Closing the Loop

Section 8
Implementing Assessment Training on Campus


Section 9
References & Resources



Using Materials from this Website



Samples of Locally-Developed Program Assessment Tools

Program assessment provides a unique opportunity to assess learning over time, integrated learning. For this reason many programs use embedded course assessment, portfolios, performance assessments, capstone or senior projects, and capstone courses to assess program outcomes. Well-articulated SLOs will suggest a form of assessment that closely approximates real-life experiences. While development of homegrown tools can be time intensive, the dialogue and customized feedback are invaluable to improving programs. In programs it is important to check the assessment tool out using sample student artifacts, use trial populations to check the tool and the feasibility of its administration. Review the assessment tool on an annual basis. (Use the assessment tool checklist as a guide.) The sample program assessment methods below have been used at a number of institutions successfully Samples are linked in the resource section.

Embedded Course Questions or Problems

Several institutions have reported successful use of embedded questions to assess program outcomes across a number of sections. This entails cooperation to develop valid and reliable questions or problems relevant to the program SLOs that are then embedded within context of routine course assessment throughout the program. There are several advantages to this technique: assessments are relevant to the specific course, program, and institutional goals, data collection does not require extra time for students or faculty, student buy-in is greater because the assessment is part of the course work, and immediate formative feedback provides diagnostic improvement.


Portfolios were developed based upon the art portfolio model that displays the student's abilities through a collection of artifacts. Many institutions use portfolio projects to provide a unique opportunity to assess development and change over time. Portfolios benefits student metacognitive growth and result in a resume-like product which students can use beyond their schooling. Difficulties include managing the variability between portfolios, storing the physical products, and assessing the work. Some institutions use electronic student portfolios that are commercially available (see links to the right). Assessing the portfolio work is a challenge, requiring detailed rubrics, norming, and time outside of the normal faculty workload. Instructions to the students must be explicit, based upon the purpose and uses of the portfolio.

Performance Assessment

Assessment of student performance provides a unique opportunity to assess skills and abilities in a real-time situation. While performance assessment appears a natural tool for fine arts, it has also been used in the humanities in the form of debates or re-enactments. "High-quality performance as a goal, whether at the course or program level can make the curriculum more transparent, coherent, and meaningful for faculty and students alike. Clarity and meaningfulness, in turn, can be powerful motivators for both faculty and students, particularly if the performance is a public one. And public performances provide models for other students" (Wright, 1999). Performance assessments, like portfolios, require well-designed instruments, criteria, rubrics, and norming between reviewers.

Capstone Projects

Many institutions have developed senior projects to assess the integrated skills, knowledge, and abilities of students in programs over a program of study. A variety of sample senior projects (capstones) are linked in the resources section. These may be individual or team projects. The advantage of this kind of assessment is that it can be developed to exemplify authentic working conditions. Some programs use outside evaluators to help assess the student work.

Capstone Courses

Some institutions have developed capstone courses for programs which integrate an entire sequence of study. Capstone courses, where the course itself is an assessment instrument, provide unique and challenging opportunities for students to integrate and demonstrate their knowledge, skills, and abilities. Capstone courses provide ample and focused formative time to synthesize and cement specific skills and competencies. Capstone courses are a significant learning experience as well as a powerful assessment tool.

Student Self-Assessment

Student self-assessment can provide powerful information that can not be accomplished by any other means of assessment. Student self-assessment can provide insight into affective development and metacognitive growth that other assessment can not. The goal of the self-assessment and the rubric to evaluate the self assessment should be explicit. It is wise to ask the students to provide evidence of any conclusions they make; this may include artifacts to support these conclusions.

  Proceed to Program/Course Matrix

Resources and Links

Review Assessment Tool Samples and Links

Assessment Tool Checklist


Michigan State University's Embedded Assessment

Assessment at the Program Level
Trudy Bers on the CAI website








Student Portfolios

Sample Electronic Portfolio from Elon University

Properties of Student Portfolios Eder at SIUE




Pacific Lutheran University Senior Projects

Indiana University Bioinformatics Program Capstone Projects

University of Cincinnati Capstone Project

CSU Channel Islands Capstone Project

Southern Illinois University Edwardsville Senior Project

See Julian's chapter in Banta, Lund, Black & Oblander, 1996. Assessment in practice: Putting principles to work on college campuses.


Capstone Courses


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