Academic Assessment

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How do we know what students are learning?

There are as many different definitions of learning as there are educators. Most, however, converge on the idea that human learning involves an enduring change in one's knowledge, skills, or beliefs that occurs through experience. While social interactions and contexts are important mediators of learning, this enduring change is an individual process that occurs within the mind of the learner, and thus is not visible to others. So, how do we know that students are learning? How do we what they have learned, or when they have learned it?

We don't know, but we can infer that learning has occurred by observing the outward manifestations of the changes that characterize learning. When students know, can do, or believe something that they did not previously, it is reflected in what they say, how they act, and what they produce. By purposefully observing and collecting information about changes in our students' words, actions and products, we can make meaningful interpretations about what, how much, or when they have learned.

As professors, we can use these interpretations to help guide the ways in which we organize our curricula, plan our classes, and design our assignments. Information about student learning can help us advocate for new faculty lines and new programs. It supports our bids for accreditation and can encourage donors.

As academics, we are curious by nature. Within our chosen disciplines, we look to understand the world in terms of the knowledge-base that exists, and through our research and experimentation push the edge of that knowledge to reveal new insights or understandings. Engaging in the assessment of student learning provides an opportunity to draw on our natural curiosity and tap our skills as analytical thinkers to better understand our students as learners and ourselves as teachers.

The ways in which information about student learning can be collected and interpreted are as varied as the types of learners, the subjects to be learned, and the settings in which learning occurs. Questions that drive these varied processes likewise differ depending on the individuals asking them and the academic fields in which they are rooted. Whatever your questions or your field of study, there are many resources to help you as you embark or continue on the process of assessing student learning. The Center for Academic Excellence has a wide selection of texts, and there are a number of helpful online resources.


Assessing Academic Programs in Higher Education by Mary J. Allen. Published in 2004 by Anker Publishing, an affiliate of John Wiley & Sons. (Available through the CAE Lending Library - Call Number: ASMT0012).

Assessment Clear and Simple: A Practical Guide of Institutions, Departments, and General Education, 2nd Edition, by Barbara E. Walvoord, Foreword by Trudy W. Banta. Published in 2010 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. (Available as an eBook through the DiMenna-Nyselius Library; and the CAE Lending Library - Call Number: ASMT0016).

Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide, 2nd Edition by Linda Suskie, Published in 2009 by Jossey-Bass (Available as an eBook through the DiMenna-Nyselius Library).

Assessing for Learning: Building a Sustainable Commitment Across the Institution, 2nd Edition by Peggy L. Maki, Published in 2010 by Stylus. (Available through the CAE Lending Collection - Call Number: EVSTU0038).

Planning and Assessment in Higher Education: Demonstrating Institutional Effectiveness by Michael F. Middaugh, Published in 2009 by Jossey-Bass (Available as an eBook through the DiMenna-Nyselius Library).

Online Resources

Guides for course- and program-level assessment:

Course-Based Review and Assessment (PDF), Methods for Understanding Student Learning (PDF), Office of Academic Planning & Assessment, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Fall 2001.

  • This online handbook includes information on how to get started with course-based assessment, how to adapt your course to include assessment, determine when and how often to assess student learning, interpret and use the results of classroom assessment to better understand student learning, and close the loop by adjusting teaching to improve student learning.

Program-Based Review and Assessment (PDF), Tools and Techniques for Program Improvement (PDF), Office of Academic Planning & Assessment, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Fall 2001.

  • This online handbook provides an overview of practices for assessing student learning at the program-level, resources on defining goals and objectives, designing an assessment program, assessment strategies and methods, conducting analysis, reporting, and closing the assessment loop by using the results for program improvement.

Additional resources online:

Assessment Resources: Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U), features: institutional and departmental assessment plans, portfolio and capstone assessments, how-to guides, and insights and practices from campuses across the U.S.

VALUE Rubrics (Valid Assessment of Learning in Undergraduate Education), AAC&U - free rubrics for evaluating AAC&U's 15 Essential Learning Outcomes developed by faculty from across the U.S. Includes: critical and creative thinking, intercultural knowledge and competence, quantitative literacy, written and oral communication.

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