Assessment is a term that has been used frequently in various circles of higher education over the past few decades. While the word is widely used to mean anything from a tool used to evaluate an individual student, to a campus-wide program to decide whether the education being offered is deemed effective, the definition of assessment that we will be using is a “systematic process of gathering evidence of the extent to which groups of students perform in the aggregate in attaining particular levels of knowledge or skill, in order to judge the effectiveness or improve provision” (Kuh & Ewell, 2010).1 Within these web pages, we provide resources that will help you answer the basic question: “Are my students learning and changing in the way that I want them to in my class?”

There are three different levels of assessment in higher education:

  • Course-level assessment: aggregates data from multiple tools, both from student assignments as well as indirect measures of learning to understand whether students are meeting the goals of a particular course.
  • Program-level assessment: aggregates course-level assessment along with other data gathered at the program level to determine whether a program is effective in accomplishing the goals it has set forth for its graduates.
  • Institution-level assessment: aggregates assessment from multiple programs as well as other types of institution-wide and multi-institutional data to draw conclusions about an entire institution’s effectiveness in educating its students. Data from smaller levels of assessment can roll-up to the higher assessment levels; therefore, course-level and program-level assessment data can be important when compiling and assessing at the institution-level.

Assessment can be used for a variety of purposes in higher education. Assessment can be used by universities and accrediting bodies in the educational institution accreditation process, it can be used by programs and colleges to assess the effectiveness of departments, majors, course progressions, etc., and it can be used by individual instructors as a way to determine whether their courses are meeting their learning goals and outcomes. While this website contains information relevant to other levels of higher education assessment, it is specifically designed to help you to use assessment at the level of an individual course, and not at the level of programs or universities. When course-level assessment is used, it is usually completed by an individual instructor or by a small team, rather than by a department or larger unit.

The function of this website is to provide resources for those seeking to learn more about and integrate course-level assessment into their classes. Links are provided on our Web Resources page if you want to learn more about other ways assessment can be used in higher education. To learn more about the process of accreditation for Ohio State, please refer to the Office of Academic Affairs website where they also have more information about how assessment is used at Ohio State.

1 Kuh, George D. and Peter T. Ewell. (2010). The state of learning outcomes assessment in the United States. Higher Education Management and Policy 22(1):1-20.

General Process of Assessment

Articulating Goals and Outcomes:

In order for course-level assessment to be effective, it needs to be instructor-driven.  Only someone directly involved with the design and purpose of a course can effectively determine what questions are worth answering in the assessment process.  In order to determine what those questions are, it is necessary to clearly outline the goals and learning outcomes of the learning element to be assessed.  For a general education course, this will include the learning outcomes developed by the instructor and any specific standards outlined by the General Education guidelines.  Once it is clear what the curriculum requires and what the instructor hopes the students are learning and taking away from a specific course, data can be collected on whether or not the course is helping students meet these goals.

Developing an Assessment Strategy:

Once you have decided what you will assess in your course, you will need to collect data about it. Advice on how to choose what types of data you should collect, how you will collect data, and how you will use it is included in this website under Developing an Assessment Plan.

Implementing the Assessment Strategy:

Once you have a plan for how you will collect data, the next step is to actually collect the data throughout the process of teaching your course.

Interpreting the Data on Learning:

In order for assessment to be an effective and powerful tool in continuously improving education (and any particular course), assessment cannot be a process of just gathering information. The results of your data collection must be analyzed as to what level of success the aggregate of students have achieved, using standards that you have determined for this purpose.

Modifying the Learning Experience (Closing the Loop):

Once analyzed, action should be taken to improve student attainment of those goals through changes in course design and delivery.   Assessment is an iterative process that seeks to constantly determine the effectiveness of current practices, and indicate directions for possible improvement to enhance the processes of student learning.

It is also important to note that assessing your course is different than grading your students.  While some tools that can be used in assessment are similar to those that can be used to assign grades in your class, they are not the same.  Rather than grading the student on their overall performance across all of the learning outcomes in your class, assessment seeks to determine how well the material, organization, and course design are helping students in general meet each of the main goals of the course. However, it is possible for different components of student grades to be used in an aggregate form to create assessment tools.  Embedded testing is an example of how this can work in your classroom.

Benefits of Assessment

Course assessment can be used for a number of purposes.  Assessment can be used to help you identify those things that are working well in your course, identify things that could be improved upon, make strategic revisions in the future, and then evaluate the success of these changes.  It can also help reveal how your course fits in with the curriculum, whether there are gaps to fix or improvements that could be made, and also to ensure that resources are used as efficiently as possible.  While assessment can be used in beneficial ways, the process of assessment does not by itself improve student learning.  Instead, assessment is a process that helps to determine what is assisting with and detracting from student learning and helps identify where to make targeted changes in a course.  Additionally, assessment can be a powerful tool to help identify those benefits or problems that may be the best avenue of focus in a class given limited time and resources for changes.