Why Assess Student Learning?

Conducting regular assessment helps an academic program determine how the curriculum is contributing to the learning and development of students. Assessment helps programs:

  • Discover through empirical evidence "what students are learning"
  • Identify gaps in student learning areas
  • Inform teaching pedagogy by aligning best practices with learners’ needs
  • Make informed decisions; guide curriculum, course action, and revision
  • Demonstrate overall program effectiveness; showcase student learning ‐ "what works"

(Adapted from 9 Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning)

Best Practices in Assessment

You may already be an assessment practitioner if you engage in some of the following:

  • Develop and share student learning outcomes that are connected to the goals of the program
  • Link student learning outcomes to the broader mission and goals of the college and university
  • Map where in the curriculum (courses/assignments/educational experiences) students have the opportunity to work toward the student learning outcomes
  • Develop and use direct measure(s) to determine if students have met the learning outcomes in the appropriate places in the curriculum
  • Analyze the results
  • Communicate assessment results to faculty
  • Use the results to make changes or improvements
  • Articulate the link between student learning outcomes assessment results and improvements made to student learning, pedagogy, curriculum, academic programs or assessment processes

Facilitating Discussions on Using Assessment Results

One of the most challenging aspects of assessment is using the results to inform and reflect upon current practice and facilitate program change. This phase of assessment planning is often referred to as “closing the loop.” Using assessment results is a key element in supporting a program’s continuous improvement processes. A critical starting point is dissemination and discussion of assessment findings among program faculty and staff. Programs might also share findings with students (if appropriate), as well as deans, department chairs, college curriculum committees, and governing bodies. 

Here are sample questions to guide your discussion:

1.  What did the assessment results indicate about the level of achievement of the student learning outcomes?
2.  Did the results inform or guide program improvements to curriculum or instruction?
          If yes, how and when will the improvement or change be implemented?
          If yes, how will you know if the improvement or change improved student learning?
3.  Did the program use any other data to guide improvement to program services or support?
4.  In what ways are you able to "close the loop" and use data to improve student learning outcomes or the program?

Glossary of Terms

The following terms are used throughout the website and will be helpful as you develop your understanding and practice of assessment. The definitions provided in this list were adapted from various sources, including the Glossary of Assessment Terms compiled by American Public University System, 2012.

Academic Program Review (APR)

A transparent, collaborative, and comprehensive process providing faculty and administration with information needed to support and guide a university process of continual program planning, quality improvement, and resource allocation.  Conducted on an established cycle, this review includes a comprehensive analysis of the structure, processes, and outcomes of the program with results typically reported to senior university leadership and the Board of Trustees.

Achievement Level

Indicates what level of student, program, or service performance is acceptable.


The process of assuring that learning outcomes, curriculum and instruction, and assessment all match and support each other. 


The systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development.

Assessment Plan

A document that outlines the student learning outcomes and program objectives, the direct and indirect assessment methods used to demonstrate the attainment of each outcome/objective, a brief explanation of the assessment methods, an indication of which outcomes are addressed by each method, the intervals at which evidence is collected and reviewed, and the individual(s) responsible for the collection/review of evidence.


Specific standards against which Units gauge success in achieving an outcome. Benchmarks or standards determine the acceptable level of achievement for each unit outcome/objective.  Defining acceptability or unacceptability will depend upon the importance of the outcome/objective and type of measure (direct or indirect). 

Course Level Assessment

Methods of assessing student learning within the classroom environment, using course goals, outcomes and content to gauge the extent of learning that is taking place.

Curriculum Mapping

An analytical approach that allows faculty to identify important components of program curricula, place them in relation to each other in a visual format, and then capture an overarching curricular structure to support cognitive scaffolding for further analysis. A curriculum map is a visual tool that can be used to introduce new students and faculty to the program, curriculum discussion, accreditation requirements, and provides an approach to systematically study the curriculum. Curriculum mapping is especially helpful in implementing an assessment plan.

Dimensions and Objectives

The following dimensions are areas of university activity within which RIT must be successful in order to realize the vision of the Strategic Plan and the university mission. The four dimensions help organize the goals and performance commitments of the plan and emphatically express current university priorities. The Dimensions are:

  • Dimension One: People
  • Dimension Two: Programs
  • Dimension Three: Places
  • Dimension Four: Partnerships

Each dimension has sub-categories and associated objectives. 

Direct Assessment of Learning

Direct Assessment of Learning occurs when measures of learning are based on student performance or demonstrate the learning itself. Examples include scoring performance on tests, term papers, or the execution of lab skills. Direct assessment of learning can occur within a course (e.g., performance on a series of tests) or across courses or years (comparing writing scores from sophomore to senior year).

Formative Assessment

The gathering of information or data about student learning during a course or program that is used to guide improvements in teaching and learning. Activities are usually low-stakes or no-stakes. Focus is on the documentation of student development over time.

General Education Assessment

Assessment that measures the campus-wide, general education competencies agreed upon by the faculty. General education assessment is more holistic in nature than program assessment, because competencies are measured across disciplines, rather than just within a single discipline.

Indirect Assessment of Learning 

Indirect Assessment of Learning uses perceptions, reflections or secondary evidence to make inferences about student learning. For example, surveys of employers, students' self-assessments, and grades are indirect evidence of learning.

Institutional Assessment

The systematic collection, review, and use of information about educational programs, undertaken for the purpose of improving student learning and development.

Institutional Effectiveness

The systematic and ongoing process of planning, making informed decisions, and allocating resources by systematically collecting, assessing, and acting on data relative to how well the institution is achieving its mission and purposes. The overarching question is: how well are we achieving our mission and goals? Assessment of institutional effectiveness essentially involves a systematic, explicit, and documented comparison of institutional performance to institutional purpose.

Program Goals

Broad statements that describe the long-term program targets or directions of development. Stated in broad terms what the program wants to accomplish (in student learning outcomes) or desires to become over the next several years. 

Program Level Assessment

Program Level Assessment does not focus on an individual student. Rather, the emphasis is on what and how an academic program is contributing to the learning, growth and development of students as a group.  A quality assessment plan reflects specific program goals, measureable student learning outcomes and a well-articulated plan for timely implementation, strategic data collection and analysis, and use of findings to inform, confirm, and support program level change and accomplishments facilitate continuous program level improvement.


Scoring tools that explicitly represent the performance expectations for an assignment or piece of work. A rubric divides the assigned work into component parts and provides clear descriptions of the characteristics of the work associated with each component at varying levels of mastery. Rubrics can be used for a wide array of assignments: papers, projects, oral presentations, artistic performances, group projects, etc. Rubrics can be used as scoring or grading guides, to provide formative feedback to support and guide ongoing learning efforts, or both.

Student Learning Outcome

A measurable statement of what students should know and be able to do as a result of their course work and educational experiences at an institution or in a program of study.

Summative Assessment

The gathering of information at the conclusion of a course, program, or undergraduate career to improve learning or to meet accountability demands. When used for improvement, impacts the next cohort of students taking the course or program. Examples: examining student final exams in a course to see if certain specific areas of the curriculum were understood less well than others; analyzing senior projects for the ability to integrate across disciplines.


A collection of data from multiple measures in order to show consistency of results.

For questions related to program assessment, contact 

Leah Bradley
Leah Bradley, Ed.D., Director