Assessing Student Learning

  • Writing Learning Outcomes
  • Measures
  • Literature & Websites
  • Rubrics

Writing Learning Outcomes

What do you want your students to know and be able to do as a result of taking your course? What do you want your student to know and be able to do as a graduate of your program? 

It is important to have learning outcomes not only to guide what you do in your class/program, but also so that students can know what your learning goals are for them, and what they should be working toward. 

Four to seven is a good number of essential learning outcomes to have for a course or program. More than seven and it becomes very difficult to track.

As you develop learning outcomes, they should all start with: "As a result of [taking this course], students will be able to...." followed by a skill/ability/knowlege, and the level to which they should achive that skill/ability/knowledge.

It's good to use verbs in your outcomes that are measurable, so you can track the extent to which students are learning what you hope they would, and then make improvements if needed. It is hard to measure "learning", "understanding" or "knowing" so it is best not to use these verbs. 

Here is a list of active verbs that you might consider for your learning outcomes: 

Active Verbs for Learning Outcomes


For more information about writing learning outcomes, watch these videos: 

Video: The basics of writing learning outcomes by Campus Labs (35 min)

Video: Using Bloom's Taxonomy to write learning outcomes (10 min)

Video: Assessing learning outcomes (58 min)


Video: Developing a rubric by Campus Labs (37 min)

Literature & Websites

Journal: Research and Practice in Assessment, a peer-reviewed journal by the Virginia Assessment Group

Journal: The Intersection, a quarterly publication by the AALHE

Assessing learning for online education - NILOA Occasional Paper #12

Website: Assessment Commons

Website: Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education (AALHE)


Aren't quiz and test grades assessment enough?

Summative assessment, that is tests and quizzes given at set times throughout the course, can give a very specific type of feedback regarding learning, however, there are definite drawbacks to using only summative assessment. The gaps in student learning may not be noticed until late into the semester, sometimes after it is too late for the student to catch up.

Formative assessment happens more regularly and can employ a number of tools and methods that give specific feedback on what students are grasping. 

"What the recent research on student learning has concluded is that the more actively students are involved in the learning process and take personal responsibility for their learning outcomes, the greater are the learning results." --Todd M. Davis and Patricia Hillman Murrell, from "Turning Teaching Into Learning." Regular formative assessment can involve students in their own learning experience. 

Some examples of assessment methods

Authentic Assessment: where students are asked to perform real-world tasks that demonstrate application of their knowledge and skills. 

Capstone Courses: could be a senior seminar or designated assessment course. Program learning outcomes can be integrated into assignments.

Case Studies: involve a systematic inquiry into a specific phenomenon, e.g. individual, event, program, or process. Data are collected via multiple methods often utilizing both qualitative and quantitative approaches.

Classroom Assessment: is often designed for individual faculty who wish to improve their teaching of a specific course. Data collected can be analyzed to assess student learning outcomes for a program.

Collective Portfolios: Faculty assemble samples of student work from various classes and use the “collective” to assess specific program learning outcomes. Portfolios can be assessed by using scoring rubrics; expectations should be clarified before portfolios are examined.

Content Analysis: is a procedure that categorizes the content of written documents. The analysis begins with identifying the unit of observation, such as a word, phrase, or concept, and then creating meaningful categories to which each item can be assigned. For example, a student’s statement that “I learned that I could be comfortable with someone from another culture” could be assigned to the category of “Positive Statements about Diversity.” The number of incidents that this type of response occurred can then be quantified and compared with neutral or negative responses addressing the same category.

Embedded Questions to Assignments: Questions related to program learning outcomes are embedded within course exams. For example, all sections of “research methods” could include a question or set of questions relating to your program learning outcomes. Faculty score and grade the exams as usual and then copy exam questions that are linked to the program learning outcomes for analysis. The findings are reported in the aggregate.

Exit Interviews: Students leaving the university, generally graduating students are interviewed or surveyed to obtain feedback. Data obtained can address strengths and weaknesses of an institution or program and or to assess relevant concepts, theories or skills.

Focus Groups: are a series of carefully planned discussions among homogeneous groups of 6-10 respondents who are asked a carefully constructed series of open-ended questions about their beliefs, attitudes, and experiences. The session is typically recorded and later the recording is transcribed for analysis. The data is studied for major issues and reoccurring themes along with representative comments.

Interviews: are conversations or direct questioning with an individual or group of people. The interviews can be conducted in person or on the telephone. The length of an interview can vary from 20 minutes to over an hour. Interviewers should be trained to follow agreed-upon procedures (protocols).

Locally developed essay questions: Faculty develop essay questions that align with program learning outcomes. Performance expectations should be made explicit prior to obtaining results.

Locally developed exams with objective questions: Faculty create an objective exam that is aligned with program learning outcomes. Performance expectations should be made explicit prior to obtaining results.

Matrices: are used to summarize the relationship between program objectives and courses, course assignments, or course syllabus objectives to examine congruence and to ensure that all objectives have been sufficiently structured into the curriculum.

Observations: can be of any social phenomenon, such as student presentations, students working in the library, or interactions at student help desks. Observations can be recorded as a narrative or in a highly structured format, such as a checklist, and they should be focused on specific program objectives.

Primary Trait Analysis: is a process of scoring student assignments by defining the primary traits that will be assessed, and then applying a scoring rubric for each trait.

Reflective Essays: generally are brief (five to ten minute) essays on topics related to identified learning outcomes, although they may be longer when assigned as homework. Students are asked to reflect on a selected issue. Content analysis is used to analyze results.

Scoring Rubrics: can be used to holistically score any product or performance such as essays, portfolios, recitals, oral exams, research reports, etc. A detailed scoring rubric that delineates criteria used to discriminate among levels is developed and used for scoring. Generally two raters are used to review each product and a third rater is employed to resolve discrepancies. 

Standardized Achievement and Self-Report Tests: Select standardized tests that are aligned to your specific program learning outcomes. Score, compile, and analyze data. Develop local norms to track achievement across time and use national norms to see how your students compare to those on other campuses.

Surveys: are commonly used with open-ended and closed-ended questions. Closed ended questions require respondents to answer the question from a provided list of responses. Typically, the list is a progressive scale ranging from low to high, or strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Transcript Analysis: are examined to see if students followed expected enrollment patterns or to examine specific research questions, such as to explore differences between transfer and freshmen enrolled students.

Source: Allen, Mary; Noel, Richard, C.; Rienzi, Beth, M.; and McMillin, Daniel, J. (2002). Outcomes Assessment Handbook. California State University, Institute for Teaching and Learning, Long Beach, CA.