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Essentially, learning outcomes are the results of instruction. They are the end, rather than the means. Statements of learning outcomes express, in observable terms, the knowledge, skills, and competencies that students are expected to exhibit upon successful completion of a course, academic program, co-curricular program, etc.
Effective statements of expected student learning are focused on the most important goals of a course or program. They address learning as a multidimensional process, stress generalizable and higher-order thinking skills rather than memorization of facts, and they are sufficiently explicit so that all stakeholders understand their meaning.
A variety of approaches may be used as evidence of student learning. The best approaches clearly and purposefully relate to the goals they are assessing, maximize the use of existing data and information, and include direct evidence of whether or not a student has command of a specific subject or content area, can perform a certain task, exhibits a particular skill, demonstrates a certain quality in his or her work, or holds a particular value. This may include examinations, writing samples, presentations, artistic performances, research projects, field work, or service learning.
No. Grades alone may not tell us much about student learning, because a letter or numeric grade does not express the content of what students have learned. The grading process can provide a lot of helpful information, particularly when it is linked to learning goals. Grading and assessment criteria may differ, and grades may not reflect all learning experiences. While grades certainly play a role in the assessment process, they are usually not sufficient for answering questions about whether specific learning goals have been achieved. In addition, grading standards may be vague, idiosyncratic, or inconsistent.
Course evaluations can be useful for assessment, provided they address learning outcomes. Most course evaluations focus on instruction (course organization, content, instructor attributes, etc) and not on the specific learning goals.
Assessment is an integral part of the teaching and learning process. For the results of assessment to be useful, it needs to be part of your everyday processes, but the timing and scope of your efforts should be logical and appropriate for your learning goals. Because the purpose of assessment is to improve the quality of student learning through teaching, it's essential that assessment be ongoing and useful. Do not try to assess every goal at once; focus on a small number of fundamental goals at a time.
There are lots of instances of good assessment practice going on at other universities. Sometimes, it is useful to browse these, but keep in mind that the best assessment will be what is useful to you.
If you'd like to browse some examples, you might start with these:
North Carolina State University
A large collection of helpful resources that include general overviews, resource materials, and discipline-specific examples.
University of Connecticut
A general, all-purpose site with a lot of useful information. In the "Assessment Primer," under the heading "Assessment Planning" there are some helpful generic tables to aid the development of an assessment plan.
University of Delaware
For those interested in examples at the Department or Discipline level, section IV, “Developing a Departmental/Program Assessment Plan,” is clearly written and concise. (This site also has links to other examples.)
Occidental College's Assessment Plans
A very good example of a comprehensive campus-wide assessment plan.
University of Michigan, College of Engineering
A comprehensive overview of creating a plan for program level assessment (appropriate for a Department or Major). Toward the bottom of the page, there are links to many examples.
Cornell University Center for Teaching Excellence
A large number of resources to support faculty in their teaching activities, including developing a syllabus, fine-tuning learning objectives, assessing learning outcomes, and developing grading rubrics. Also see http://www.cte.cornell.edu/teaching-ideas/assessing-student-learning/ for additional examples of assessment plans, organized by discipline.
There are a number of good examples of assessment of student learning outcomes in graduate programs. In some cases, the learning goals for graduate study are incorporated into a department's goals for undergraduate education. Other institutions create separate processes. The links below can help get you started: