Assessing Learning Outcomes

Assessment is one of the most difficult and challenging parts of course design. Here in CAFE, we use a "backwards design" approach to course design. We like to start with the desired result that aligns with our student learning outcomes. Then we design the assessment that best measures the achievement in progress towards those outcomes. We've often found that problems in courses results from assessments that are not properly designed with the desired results in mind. For example, if all you do is lecture to students about the material, but don't explain how to apply that material, then it's not really reasonable to expect them to apply the course material on a major exam. They need you to guide them through the process and give them ample opportunities to practice. All learning activities center around a change within the learner. A quality assessment measures the change in understanding of the student.

Assessment is an enormously complex topic. Many, many books have been written on this subject. We have a treasure trove of resources in the CAFE office on the subject of Assessment. We encourage you to visit us to see what we have to offer in this area. 


Assessments tend to fall into two main categories: formative and summative. It's usually best to have a good mix of both to gain a more accurate portrait of student performance on learning outcomes. 

Formative Assessments

  • Lower stakes
  • Help students identify strengths and weaknesses
  • Help instructors identify key areas in which students are struggling.
  • Examples:
    • short quizzes
    • one-minute papers
    • brief activities
    • in-class discussions
    • reflection papers (one page or less)
    • peer reviews

Summative Assessments

  • Higher stakes
  • Evaluate student performance at end of unit/module/course
  • Compare performance against a benchmark or standard
  • Examples:
    • Comprehensive mid-term/end-of-course exams
    • Major projects
    • Research papers
    • Lab reports

Characteristics of High-Quality Assessments

  • Monitor change in understanding of students
  • Facilitates student understanding of learning process
  • Measures desired learning outcomes
  • Authentic task based on real-world applications
  • Students understand why the assessment holds value for them, personally (the "So What?" factor)


"Alignment" with respect to assessments is a somewhat nebulous concept. The basic idea is that your learning outcomes determine what you want students to be able to know and do. Your assessments are the physical manifestation of the ability of students to perform that task. The activities that prepare students for the assessments should be "aligned" so that by the time students are ready to do the assessment, it's almost a forgone conclusion that they will be able to perform the task at some level of competency, proficiency, or mastery.

There are multiple dimensions to alignment:

  • Vertical - Assessments are aligned with the previous course and future courses in a series. For example, the assessments in Calculus II should rely on what students have learned in Calc I and prepare students for success in Calc III.
  • Horizontal - Assessments are aligned with the courses and sections taught parallel to one another. On our campus its common for lab and lecture sections to be taught together. Ideally, the assessments in the lab section should demonstrate the outcomes in the related lecture section and vice versa.
  • Integrated - The learning outcomes, activities, and assessments all reinforce one another, resulting in a student learning experience that maximizes their opportunities to learn the material to the fullest.


Feedback is an important component of the assessment process. How can you become better unless you know what needs improvement? 

We in CAFE recommend providing feedback that is specifictargeted, and timely. In other words, feedback works best when you describe specific items on which students can improve. It should target key issues that are important for them to learn. And it should be offered in a timely manner so that they can improve on their performance before their next assessment. It makes no sense to give students feedback on Exam 1 the day before they are supposed to complete Exam 2, yet this does happen.

We also recommend soliciting feedback FROM your students as well as giving feedback TO your students. Your students can evaluate you on your teaching performance through a mid-semester feedback survey, a service we offer every semester.

Rubrics can be a handy tool for providing feedback. Properly utilized, they can save you a lot of time, and give students transparency on what you are expecting from them. Rubrics are also very convenient for assessing the "soft skills" students will be developing in your course.

How do you hold students accountable for reading the feedback you provide? One way is to award points if they make changes to an assignment based on your feedback and give them an opportunity to resubmit. Another way is to have students prepare a one-minute video on how they could improve their performance (again for a couple of points).

Here are a couple of useful handouts:

  • 7 Principles of Formative Feedback - This document summarizes useful ways in which you can utilize feedback to improve student performance.
  • Weekly Feedback Form - A simple way of asking students to reflect on their learning process is to ask them about it every week. They'll soon get in the habit of filling out the form. You can then use this feedback to structure the course to meet their needs.

Assessments are a complex combination of evaluative exercises, alignment with learning outcomes, and feedback opportunities to improve student performance. If you have more questions, comments, or concerns about assessments, please reach out to CAFE to schedule a consultation through the button below.