Assessment of Student Learning

Assessment of student learning is one part of the cyclical program assessment process, and its purpose is to provide faculty and administrators with information to help them ensure students are learning what they need to be successful and to improve how, what and how much students learn in their programs.

The process also provides documentation of student learning to help programs and the university meet external requirements, including those of accreditation organizations.

Types of assessment

There are two important and distinct types of assessment essential to MU's educational mission:

  • the assessment of student competence
  • the assessment of the effectiveness of the teaching and learning strategies employed by faculty in programs

In general, the two types of assessment have different goals.

Assessing student competence, a common and widespread practice, determines if graduates know enough to have earned their credentials. This is integral to faculty assigning grades and to students accumulating credit hours.

Assessing learning and teaching strategies faculty members use can be more challenging. There are many courses in each program, instructors have varying teaching methods, class sizes vary, and faculty members have many demands on their time other than teaching.

Assessment for improvement, the focus of MU's assessment program, must address these challenges and others.

In some situations, the same evidence can be essential for both processes.

For example, portfolios of student work can provide evidence of an individual's competence and evidence of students' gains in the program, which is information that can help improve learning and teaching strategies.

Conducting assessments

The assessment process has two basic parts:

  1. Develop learning objectives (adapted from MU’s core learning objectives) that:
    • describe both the knowledge (also called content objectives) and the skills and competencies (also called performance objectives) students will learn
    • are broad enough to encompass everything students should know and be able to do, yet specific enough that faculty members agree about what they mean and how to assess whether students have learned them
    • communicate effectively to audiences outside of the program. That is, the language is clear and concrete and contains little disciplinary jargon.
  2. Examine the program's learning and teaching strategies, both curricular and co-curricular, and evaluate their effectiveness, that is, how well they work to bring about student learning.

The specific assessment techniques that programs use will depend on the learning objectives they develop, and faculty judgment is key.

Generally, performance objectives (e.g., students conducting research) will require observation of the performance or evaluation of the product of the performance.

On the other hand, for content objectives (e.g., knowledge of terminology and disciplinary principles) written tests are often adequate. Sampling students and their work is an effective way to learn about how much they gain from their experiences in the program.

The key is to be systematic and thorough and to focus on how well the teaching and learning strategies work, not on how competent the students are.


Matthew Martens, Faculty Fellow

(573) 882-6597