A outside view of an entrance to the Aaron Copland School of Music/ Samuel J. and Ethel LeFrak Concert Hall.

“Nothing has such power to broaden the mind as the ability to investigate systematically and truly all that comes under observation in life.” ― Marcus Aurelius

Why Assess Student Learning?

For every course and every academic program, we set learning goals for our students. Progress made towards these goals is evaluated when grades are assigned. However, grading is the analysis and use of data to make judgments about an individual student’s performance. If we want to consider how the quality of student learning might be improved, we need a way to measure and think about learning overall. Learning assessment goes one step further than grading to place our focus on the learning happening in a course or program.

The Learning Assessment Process

Teaching as an ongoing process of inquiry, experimentation, and reflection. Learning assessment provides a systematic, research-based approach for thinking about how learning could be improved. By gathering student data to gauge overall progress made towards our learning goals, we become empowered to make evidence-based decisions about course design, pedagogy, and resource allocation. The process is informed by the following questions:

What do I want students to learn?

Define your goals for the course or program, and identify the observable or measurable student learning objectives (aka SLOs) that describe how students will demonstrate that a learning goal has been met. Students need to understand what their learning objectives are so that they can plan how to achieve them and stay cognizant of how well they are achieving them.

How well are they learning it?

Map the learning goals to the curriculum and to assessment methods. “Mapping” will show the extent to which the learning goals are addressed in your course, and help to structure course or program content in ways that promote learning. The next step is to implement assessment methods to gather evidence, and analyze the data, and summarize the findings.

How might learning be improved?

Use the results to identify areas that can be improved (content, structure, alignment, delivery, pedagogy, etc.) and implement changes (“close the loop“).

Assessment provides a clear conceptualization of the learning goals we set for our students, a map of how these goals are aligned to the instructional strategies meant to accomplish them, a plan for how progress on these goals will be assessed, a description of the results obtained from assessment methods, and documentation on how these results validate current practices or point to changes needed to achieve the goals of the course or program.

Assessment can occur at the course, program, or institutional level. To learn more about assessing student learning within a course, see our page on Course-Level Assessment. To learn more about assessing student learning within an academic program, see our page on Program-Level Assessment.


Concerns about Assessment

Learning is a complex process with cognitive, affective, and social dimensions that involves not only knowledge and understanding, but also values, attitudes, and habits of mind that affect students’ success in and beyond the classroom. Teaching as an ongoing process of inquiry, experimentation, and reflection.  Taking the time to address questions about teaching, learning, and curricular alignment can dramatically improve the effectiveness of courses and programs, and facilitate valuable interdisciplinary and intercampus discussions about student learning. When properly aligned to learning goals, assessment methods help us determine whether our students are learning what we think they’re learning, as well as how well course/program content, delivery and pedagogy support students’ opportunities to achieve program learning goals.

It is important to acknowledge, however, that meaningful assessment demands careful, thoughtful practitioners, and that the work entailed in assessment projects must be manageable. Assessment can certainly be used in a careless and damaging fashion, especially when assessment is treated as an end in itself. The process of assessment is useful and meaningful when guided by the curiosity and intellectual dialogue that characterize the culture of higher education, when methods draw on multiple measures, following principles of research, and when instructors’ educational values are made clear through the methods of assessment.  – Adapted from the APA Statement on Outcomes Assessment 


Support for Assessment

Assessment leads to improvement when the faculty who deliver our programs own the process of assessment, i.e., when faculty determine the learning goals and means of assessment for courses, majors and other learning programs. Faculty conducting course or program level assessment should review our Introduction to Academic Assessment.

The Office of Institutional Effectiveness (OIE) aims to promote a culture at Queens College that values evidence-based decision-making. As such, OIE offers guidance to support the assessment efforts of faculty, including:

  • Assessment methods expertise (direct and indirect methods)
  • Feedback/editing support on student learning objectives and curricular mapping
  • Data analysis and data displays
  • Survey development, administration, and response analysis

To request support for an assessment activity, visit our Support page or contact us directly.

The Office of Institutional Effectiveness (OIE) also works together with the Center for Teaching and Learning (CTL) to offer faculty opportunities to explore in depth how students learn. Visit the CTL website to learn about upcoming workshops.

Assessment FAQs

Does assessment include faculty or staff evaluation?

No – absolutely not. The purpose of learning assessment is to improve student learning and it is not to be used as a way of evaluating instructors. Similarly, the purpose of administrative assessment is to improve the student experience at QC. No individual faculty or staff member has the sole responsibility for ensuring that program/office goals are met. Therefore, any assessment of progress on academic and administrative goals must not be used to evaluate any individual faculty or staff member.

How is grading different from assessment?

Generally, the goal of grading is to evaluate student learning, whereas the goal of assessment is to improve itGrading is the analysis and use of data by faculty to make judgments about an individual student’s performance. Assessment, on the other hand, is a way to measure student learning overall and improve student learning within a course or program.

Grading plays an important role in assessment, of course, as grades can provide useful evidence of student learning when they are based on direct measures (tests, projects, papers, etc.) that are clearly linked to course learning goals and consistent with standards. However, assessment typically goes beyond grading by systematically examining patterns of student learning and using this information to improve educational practices.

wdt_ID Assessment Grading
1 Ongoing Final
2 Process-oriented (how students learn) Product-oriented (what students learned)
3 Diagnostic: identify areas for improvement Judgmental: assign a letter grade
How is assessment different from research?

Assessment and research are similar in many ways: Both involve asking questions, collecting data, analyzing results, and using the results as reliable evidence. Like research, assessment activities may use quantitative or qualitative research methods, and often benefits from a mixed methods approach.

However, there are important differences. The goal of research is to confirm or challenge hypotheses to guide theory, whereas the goal of assessment is to produce reasonably accurate information about how well we are meeting our goals and to guide local practice. Many factors limit the scope and impact of assessment, including limitations on time, resources, design and implementation. As such, assessment findings typically have implications for a single course, program or institution, whereas research findings are intended to have broader implications.

Decisions about curriculum, teaching techniques, assignments, and syllabi are made regularly and such decisions are best informed by evidence – the findings of assessment activities. Good assessment practices, in the context of a particular course, program or institution, can and should guide local practice and decisions for the continual improvement of the student experience.

For more information, see Upcraft and Schuh, “Assessment vs Research: Why We Should Care about the Difference,” About Campus, March-April 2002.

Assuming assessment findings will not be published or presented at a conference, assessment activities that are conducted for internal decision-making (and not as part of a “systematic investigation, including research development, testing and evaluation, designed to develop or contribute to generalizable knowledge”) do not require IRB review. IRB approval is required for generalizable research involving human subjects. To learn more, see CUNY’s exemption policy, or CUNY’s policies on Human Research.

What constitutes evidence of student learning?

This question is best rephrased as, ‘How do we know that our students are learning?’ and it might be useful to keep in mind that gathering evidence of students’ learning is something you have been doing for most of your academic career.

While the evidence we gather is not the result of randomized controlled trials, we can, however, triangulate our measures of student learning, keep up to date with the literature on teaching and learning, and continually reflect on how learning can be improved. For example, a grade is one measure of student learning, and grades can provide useful evidence of student learning if they are based on direct measures (exams, projects, papers, etc.) that are clearly linked to course learning goals.

Student learning is best measured using several assessment methods (direct and indirect measures ). To avoid easy measures that do not sufficiently mirror the complexity of student learning, we must also take into account the peculiarities of a discipline to which assessment methods are applied.

To learn more, see Linda Susky’s Examples of Evidence of Student Learning, or check out Susan A. Ambrose’ How Learning Works: Seven Research-Based Principles for Smart Teaching.

What is the difference between learning goals and measurable objectives (aka SLOs)?

Learning goals are the broad statements we make about what we expect students to know and be able to do as a result of completing a learning experience (e.g. a reading assignment, a course module, a course or a program). Measurable learning objectives, aka Student learning outcomes (SLOs) are statements that describe the observable or measurable behaviors that would indicate the level of mastery students have achieved as a result of a learning experience. Rephrasing our learning goals for a course or program in this way can help us determine whether the learning goals we set for our students have been met, and is especially helpful for standards-based grading, which focuses on mastery.

Why is it important for a syllabus to include course learning goals and objectives?

Having clear learning goals and measurable objectives (aka SLOs) on syllabi is helpful for both students and instructors. Clearly stated goals and objectives helps students to know what the expectations are for a course ( the learning goals) and how they will be evaluated (the measurable objectives), which can positively impact student motivation and self-efficacy, and encourages students to self-assess. For instructors, having clear learning goals and objectives for a course helps to structure course content, which aids in the effective evaluation of student work. This is also known as mapping — the process of aligning learning goals to assignments and activities to ensure that learning goals are addressed in the course (or curriculum) in ways that support students’ opportunities to develop needed skills and knowledge.

How is academic program assessment different from the Academic Program Review (APR) process?

The APR process is a comprehensive self-assessment to identify a program’s challenges and opportunities in areas of quality, service, efficiency and resources. Assessment of student learning is just one component of this process. Program assessment, on the other hand, is much more focused on student learning. Furthermore, while APR self-studies take place once every few years, program assessment takes place annually. The aim is to gather information that will enable a program to identify issues that may (or may not) require attention in a timely fashion.

What is the connection between assessment and accreditation?

The short answer is that institutions and state policymakers both make use of assessment findings. However, assessment and accreditation are very different processes with very different goals.

Assessment is an internally-managed activity, as opposed to accreditation, in which an outside body evaluates how well an organization is performing. And while accreditation self studies aim to demonstrate that fiscal and human resources are being invested responsibly, faculty and staff conduct assessment activities to improve their programs. Assessment findings are an important part of the accreditation review process since they are a key source of the evidence that we provide to our accreditation bodies, but the primary focus of assessment is the student experience – assessment activities are student-centered and are meant to inform local decisions pertaining to courses, majors, programs, and support offices, whereas accreditation activities are meant to inform external reviewers.

Here at Queens College, we believe student learning assessment is best guided by the intellectual curiosity of faculty about their programs and that assessment should be approached in the spirit of experimentation and innovation. We also abide by our Guiding Principles for Assessment.

Queens College is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). To learn more about MSCHE expectations with regards to assessment, see their document on “Assessing Student Learning and Institutional Effectiveness: Middle States Expectations”. To learn more about the accreditation review process at QC, see our Provost’s website on MSCHE Accreditation.

For questions related to other assessment activities, see our Frequently Asked Questions page.