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Students taking an exam in a lecture hall.

“Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.” – Benjamin Franklin

Assessing Course-Level Student Learning

Course-level assessment of student learning incorporates the view of teaching as an ongoing process of inquiry, experimentation, and reflection. The aim 
is to 
find 
out 
what 
students 
are
 learning 
and 
how 
well 
they 
are 
learning 
it, in order to make evidence-based decisions about how learning can be improved within a particular course. Importantly, course-level assessment is characterized as:

  1. Learner-Centered


    • The
 focus 
is 
on 
observing 
and 
improving 
learning
  2. Teacher-Directed
    • Faculty 
decide 
what 
to 
assess, 
how 
to 
assess, 
and how 
to 
respond 
to assessment 
findings
  3. Mutually
 Beneficial


    • Students 
reinforce 
course 
content 
and 
strengthen 
their 
self‐assessment 
skills; 
faculty 
sharpen 
their 
teaching 
focus
  4. Formative


    • Assessments 
provides 
information 
on what, 
how
 much, 
and
 how 
well 
students 
are 
learning
  5. Context-Specific


    • The 
assessment 
technique 
is 
chosen 
to 
fit 
the 
subject 
matter 
and 
the
 needs 
of 
the 
particular 
class
  6. Ongoing
    • As assessment 
becomes 
integrated 
into 
everyday classroom
 activities, 
the 
communications 
loop 
between 
faculty 
and 
students becomes 
more 
efficient 
and 
effective; 
providing 
early feedback
 
so 
that 
necessary 
adjustments 
can 
be 
made
      Adapted from Angelo & Cross (1993, Classroom Assessment Techniques).

Course-Level Assessment Methods

Assessments should reveal how well students have learned what we want them to learn.  Instruction ensures that they learn it. Thus, assessments, learning goals, and learning activities should be closely aligned so that they reinforce one another. To ensure that these components of your course are aligned, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Learning goals: What do I want students to gain from this course?
  • Measurable objectives: How will students demonstrate mastery of learning goals?
  • Assessments: What kinds of tasks/assignments/tests will reveal whether students have achieved the objectives?
  • Learning activities: What kinds of activities (within and outside of class) will support the learning goals?

Course-level student learning assessment consists of the following steps:

  1. Articulate your learning goals and define the measurable objectives you want your student to achieve, aka student learning outcomes or objectives (SLOs).
  2. Map your learning goals and objectives to the curriculum and to assessment methods.
  3. Identify your assessment questions and implement the assessment methods.
  4. Analyze and summarize your student data.
  5. Use results to guide decisions about changes that may improve the quality of your students’ learning (aka “close the loop”: The process of using assessment results to inform and document evidence-based decision-making.).
Articulating Your Course Goals: What will students to learn?

To articulate your learning goals, consider what it is you want students to gain from the course; what are your overall goals for students? Learning goals often begin with, “In this course, the aim is to…” To translate your learning goals into measurable objectives, consider how you will know whether a student has met the goal – that is, state each goal in terms of the observable or measurable behaviors that will indicate what students are expected to demonstrate (aka Student Learning Objectives or SLOs). Student learning objectives, or SLOs, should be clear, concise statements that describe how students will demonstrate their mastery of the learning goals of the course. These objectives will guide how you assess your students’ learning, so it is important to think about the types of artifacts that will serve as evidence of student learning. Some verbs frame this evidence better than others. Whereas verbs like “learn” and “understand” do not indicate a form of evidence sought to determine the level of student learning achieved, verbs like “describe”, “explain”, and “apply” suggest more clearly a means of assessment.

Examples of SLOs:

  • discuss and apply priciples of social research.
  • design and present a final project.
  • collect and organize clinical data.
  • reflect on and identify career goals.

See the below or Bloom’s Action Verbs for further examples.

Example of action words separated into six categories: Knowledge, Comprehension, Application, Analysis, Synthesis, Evaluation.

As you articulate the learning goals for a course, think also of how they relate to and align with the learning goals of the major or academic program. Do course objectives support program objectives? If your course is a general education course, how do course objectives support Gen Ed learning outcomes?

Lastly, be sure to state the goals and objectives of a course in the syllabus, as this supports your students’ learning. Clearly stated learning objectives help students to know what the expectations are for a course and how they will be evaluated, which can positively impact student motivation and self-efficacy.

A diagram that reads from right to left: SLOs of the Institution, SLOs of the Academic Program, SLOs of the Course, SLOs of the Course Unit, SLOs of the Lesson. On the left-hand side an arrow pointing to the left reads: Design Backwards, below it an arrow pointing to the right reads: Deliver Forward.

Mapping for Alignment: How are learning goals addressed in the course?

Mapping your student learning objectives (SLOs) to the course curriculum will show the extent to which the objectives are addressed in your course and help to structure course content in ways that promote learning. Take inventory of the learning activities and instructional strategies in your course and determine whether they guide your students to meet course goals. How do the learning objectives of each lesson align to the learning goal of the course? Do students’ learning experiences build on one another and point directly to course goals? Use our Learning Objectives Organizeras a framework to communicate the alignment of course goals with assessments and learning experiences. This framework can be used to create your course map as well as communicate its alignment to colleagues and students.

To learn more about research-based teaching principles like course mapping, we recommend How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching (Ambrose et al. Wiley, 2010).

Choosing Assessment Methods: How will I know what my students are learning?

When learning activities and assessments relate directly to learning goals, your students become more likely to meet them. If course goals, learning activities and assessments are not in alignment, students spend time on activities that do not lead to your intended outcomes, which can undermine both student motivation and learning. Consider these two scenarios:

Your goal is for students to learn to apply analytical skills, but your assessment measures only factual recall. Consequently, students are frustrated that the exam does not measure what they learned.

Your assessments measure students’ ability to compare and critique, but your instructional strategies focus entirely on summarizing. Consequently, students do not practice the skills of comparison and evaluation that will be assessed.

Mapping course goals to assessment methods ensures the effective evaluation of student learning and helps to identify what’s working and not working for students in a course. Make a list of your course goals and objectives and designate assessments as measures (see our Learning Objectives Organizer). Also, keep in mind that intentionally designed assignments that are transparent about purpose, task, and criteria for evaluation have been found to lead to greater student success (Winkelmes et al., 2016).

Learning assessments generally fall into one of two categories: Formative and Summative. Click below to learn more.

Formative Assessment Methods

Formative assessments are informal, ungraded activities. Their aim is to (1) help students identify their strengths and weaknesses and target areas that need work; and (2) help faculty recognize where students are struggling at the current moment. These assessments help instructors meet the emerging needs of the class by answering questions such as, “Do I need to re-explain that concept differently?” or “Do I need to change my pedagogical approach to engage this group of students?” Formative assessments also encourage students to monitor their own learning and signal to students that we are interested in their learning, which can positively affect student motivation. Some examples include:

One-Minute Paper: Check student understanding in a lesson by asking them to take out a sheet of paper and take one minute to write down an explanation of a concept, solve an equation, or cite the main points from a lecture or assignment.

Muddiest Point Paper: Check student understanding in a lesson by asking them to take out a sheet of paper and take one minute to write down a question about the most confusing aspect of the lesson or course topic.

Polls/Clickers: Data on student learning can be gathered during class via tools such as Poll Everywhere. These data can provide a view of student engagement with the material as well as prior knowledge, misconceptions, and comprehension.

Checks for Understanding: Pausing every few minutes to see whether students are following along with the lesson not only identifies gaps in comprehension, but helps break up lectures (e.g, with Clicker questions) or online lessons (e.g., with embedded quiz questions) into more digestible bites.

Directed Paraphrase: After working through a topic, ask students to explain the content  in their own words.

Wrappers: “Wrappers” incorporate reflective questions to help students develop self-regulated learning skills, where they monitor their learning and address gaps in learning as necessary.

  • Exam Wrappers include questions about preparation strategies, remaining questions, study goals for the next unit, and so on. This helps students to reflect on their study strategies to identify the best ways to prepare for future exams. Some instructors provide students with a pre-exam wrapper to help students think about their study strategies in advance.
  • Lecture Wrappers include questions at the end of class about what the key points were. Having students compare their key points to the instructor’s can help students develop skills in active listening and identifying important information.

It is equally important to think carefully about how best to implement formative assessments into your course. These guides on in-class activities and active learning can be helpful.

Summative Assessment Methods

Summative assessments are used to evaluate student learning at the end of a course topic or course. They are commonly utilized mid-term or end-of-term to determine the level at which students achieved the expectations for their learning, to identify instructional areas that may need additional attention, and to determine course grades. Information from summative assessments can be used formatively when faculty use it to guide their efforts and activities in subsequent courses.

The table below presents examples of the kinds of activities that can be used to assess different types of learning goals and the ways that we can analyze or measure student performance to produce useful feedback about learning.

wdt_ID Goal   Types of Assessment How to Measure
7 Remember Students will be able to:
- recall
- recognize
Test items that require students to recall or recognize information:

Fill-in the Blank
Multiple Choice items such as, “what is a…”, or “which of the following is the definition of)
Labeling diagrams

Reciting (orally, musically, or in writing)
Accuracy and Item Analysis (Are there items that had higher error rates? Did some items result in the same errors?)
8 Understand Students will be able to:

- interpret
- exemplify
- classify
- summarize
- infer
- compare
- explain
Papers, oral/written exam questions, problems, class discussions, concept maps, homework assignments that require (oral or written):

- Summarizing readings, films, speeches, etc.
- Comparing and/or contrasting two or more theories, events, processes, etc.
- Classifying or categorizing cases, elements, events, etc., using established criteria
- Paraphrasing documents or speeches
- Finding or identifying examples or illustrations of a concept, principle
Rubrics that identify critical components of the work and discriminates between differing levels of proficiency
9 Apply Students will be able to:

- execute
- implement
Activities that require students to use procedures to solve or complete familiar or unfamiliar tasks; or that require students to determine which procedure(s) are most appropriate for a given task, e.g. problem sets, performances, labs, Prototyping, Simulations Accuracy scores, Check lists, Rubrics, Primary Trait Analysis
10 Analyze Students will be able to:

- differentiate
- organize
- attribute
Activities that require students to discriminate or select relevant from irrelevant parts, determine how elements function together, or determine bias, values or underlying intent in presented materials, such as: case studies, critiques, labs, papers, projects, debates, or concept maps. Rubrics, Primary Trait Analysis
11 Evaluate Students will be able to:

- check
- critique
Activities that require students to test, monitor, judge or critique readings, performances, or other products against established criteria or standards, including: journals, critiques, problem Sets, reviews, and case studies. Rubrics, Primary Trait Analysis
12 Create Students will be able to:

- generate
- plan
- produce
Research projects, musical compositions, performances, essays, business plans, website designs, prototyping, set designs Rubrics, Primary Trait Analysis

 Adapted from Carnegie Mellon’s Eberly Center

Closing the Loop: How do I use assessment results?

Assessment findings ensure our decisions about changes in course design or instruction  are evidence-based and point us to the ways in which we might better support students’ opportunities to develop the skills and knowledge required to achieve a learning goal. “Closing the Loop” actions might entail spending more or less time on a particular course topic, changing the sequencing of course topics or activities, incorporating metacognitive exercises, providing more opportunities for self-assessment, restructuring assignments, providing more feedback, using different formative and/or summative assessment methods, or realigning the learning goals of the course to learning activities and assessment methods.

Remember, assessment incorporates the view of teaching as an ongoing process of inquiry, experimentation, reflection, and innovation. When your assessment findings reveal gaps in student learning, consider the following questions:

  • Do you have the right learning goals?
  • Do you have too many learning goals?
  • Do students have enough learning opportunities to develop needed skills?
  • Do you need to improve your assessment methods (i.e. quizzes, exams, etc)?
  • Thinking about the curriculum (course content, sequencing, teaching methods, assignments, etc.) consider:
    • How are homework or problem sets related to exams/major assignments?
    • How are the exams/major assignments related to each other?
    • How do the exams/major assignments address each course learning goal?
    • What other forms of assessment can be used as indicators of student learning?
    • How is feedback on student work provided to help students improve?
    • Are the assessments structured in a way to help students assess their own work and progress?
  • Develop concrete plans for implementation of changes.
  • Develop a plan to assess the impact of those changes.

Adapted from Suskie (2009, Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide)

Keep in mind that assessment is a cyclical, systematic process.

To learn more about course-level learning assessment, download our Course Assessment Rubric, browse our Assessment Resources, consider participating in future CTL workshops, or peruse guides to course-level assessment at other colleges, such as CWSEI, Cornell, Carnegie Mellon, or U Colorado.