Assessing Student Learning Outcomes: Which Methods Are Most Successful?

Posted by Joe Bauman, M.S. on Mar 7, 2019 3:31:21 PM

There are many ways in which we can assess how well our programs are reaching their goals or outcomes. If we are trying to assess non-learning program outcomes, the method will depend on the outcome itself.

For example, if one of your program outcomes is to improve faculty professional development, you may measure your success by the proportion of program faculty engaging in meaningful professional development activities within a year. It will be up to you to determine what should count as meaningful. For our purposes here, we will focus on student learning outcomes rather than the non-learning outcomes your program may have.

When assessing student learning, you have at your disposal all the usual graded assignments: exams, papers, presentations, portfolios, group projects, etc. When using an assignment for assessment and for grading, you will want to map specific pieces of the assignment to specific learning outcomes. For example, if using an exam, you will want to know that Question 10 is related to Learning Outcome A, Questions 13 and 17 are related to Learning Outcome B, and Questions 25 and 29 are related to Learning Outcome C.

You have another tool in your assessment toolbox, especially for institutional learning outcomes (sometimes called ILOs). ILOs are typically big-picture concepts like critical thinking, effective communication, quantitative reasoning, etc. For some of these big-picture concepts, you may assess them using externally developed standardized tests. There are several standardized tests on the market to measure critical thinking, for example. The benefit to using one of these off-the-shelf tests is that, in most cases, there has been a lot of research done to validate and norm the test.

There are three main downsides, however. The first is cost. Most providers charge per student, so for larger institutions (or any institution with a tight budget) the cost can quickly become a factor. The second downside is that you will have limited options regarding the content of the test. There are several options to assess critical thinking. If your ILOs are more specialized, you will have a hard time finding an off-the-shelf test to match. Finally, the downside that has probably received the most attention is student motivation. Because these tests are rarely, if ever, part of a student’s grade in a course, getting them to show up for the test can be problematic. When they show up, we don’t really know if they are putting in their best effort, or just sitting through the test because they were told to.

Because of these downsides, most experts in learning outcomes assessment advocate for embedded assessment. This assessment process uses the assignments and exams that students are completing for their program anyway. In this way, we are not asking students to do anything extra, and we can safely assume a level of motivation because they are completing the activity as part of their grade.

Whether you assess student learning using embedded assessment or an externally validated test, SPOL's Assessment platform can help you track your results over time, collaborate with your colleagues, and document your action plans for continuous improvement.

Topics: Institutional Effectiveness, Institutional Excellence, Assessment