Office of the Provost

Overview of Assessment

The Assessment Cycle 

The Assessment Cycle

From Maki, P. L. (2002). Developing an assessment plan to learn about learning. The Journal of Academic Librarianship.

What is Outcomes Assessment?

Outcomes assessment is any systematic inquiry whose goal is to document learning and to improve the teaching/learning process. It can be understood more precisely as a three-step process of:

  1. Defining what students should be able to do, think, or know at the end of a unit of instruction (defining, that is, the student learning outcomes).
  2. Determining whether, and to what extent, students can do, think, or know it.
  3. Using this information to make improvements in teaching and learning.

If this sounds partly recognizable, that’s because all good teachers instinctively do outcomes assessment all the time. Whenever teachers give a test or assign an essay, look at the responses to see where students have done well or not so well, and reconsider their approach to teaching in light of that information, they’re doing a form of assessment. Outcomes assessment simply makes that process more systematic.

Faculty frequently mistake assessment for something it is not. Though it over-simplifies a bit, we suggest that you ask yourselves these questions to be sure that you are actually engaged in outcomes assessment:

  • Are you demonstrating, in more tangible ways than simply pointing to grading patterns and institutional data, that learning is taking place in your discipline? If you are, you are doing outcomes assessment. You are documenting student learning.
  • Are you identifying, with some precision, areas in your department where learning is deficient, and working actively to improve learning? If so, you are doing outcomes assessment. You are trying to enhance and improve student learning in light of evidence you’ve collected about it.

Who Should Do Assessment?

Until fairly recently, outcomes assessment data were mostly gathered by institutional research offices, focusing on key performance indicators like retention, success, persistence, and transfer rates. Results of national student engagement surveys or nationally normed tests of core competencies like writing ability and critical thinking have also been compiled for years and used primarily for accountability purposes.

Increasingly, however, the locus of outcomes assessment work has shifted from the institution as a whole (though that is still important) to the various departments and professional schools which the institution comprises. Assessment is the business of each program and school on campus—and by extension, each instructor. Comprehensive assessment plans need to be developed and implemented for graduate and professional degree programs, not simply undergraduate majors. Institution-level outcomes and data germane to those outcomes will still be important, but assessment of program-, course- and even classroom-level outcomes is also increasingly vital. Unless faculty themselves become actively involved in defining and assessing the outcomes they are most directly responsible for, the kinds of improvement assessment can lead to cannot take place.