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Frequently Asked Questions

The Basics

The primary reason to assess our academic programs is to ensure that we offer the best quality educational opportunities for our students. We want to improve student learning and, at the same time, we must fulfill the requirements of our many accrediting agencies. Assessment efforts include every academic program and academic support unit. So, the prime responsibility for assessing academic programs belongs to the faculty and staff.

Since there is no universally accepted definition of academic assessment Huba and Freed's views are reflective of the learner-centered process at UD: "Assessment is the process of gathering and discussing information from multiple and diverse sources in order to develop a deep understanding of what students know, understand, and can do with their knowledge as a result of their educational experiences; the process culminates when assessment results are used to improve subsequent learning." So, at the academic unit level, assessment is an ongoing process in which faculty:

  • Establish clear, measurable expected outcomes of student learning.
  • Ensure that students have sufficient opportunities to achieve those outcomes.
  • Systematically gather, analyze, and interpret evidence to determine how well student learning matches our expectations.
  • Reformulate educational outcomes based on the results of their assessment. 

Assessing student learning only makes sense if the program makes use of the results--otherwise, it becomes an empty exercise in data collection. The expectation is that units will use the results of the assessment for decision-making that improves instruction, strengthens the curriculum, and forms the basis for policy development and resource allocations. The assessment data you collect should help you answer the following questions:

  • How have the outcomes assessment results been reflected in decision-making for determining personnel needs/issues?
  • How have the outcomes assessment results been reflected in allocating financial resources?
  • How have the outcomes assessment results been reflected in developing new programs?
  • How have the outcomes assessment results been reflected in making program changes?
  • How have the outcomes assessment results been reflected in accomplishing departmental (program) goals?
  • How have the outcomes assessment results been reflected in decision-making relative to professional faculty development targeting student teaching and learning?
  • What do your findings/conclusions from data analyses suggest about your students, programs and student learning?
  • What major changes are you introducing this year to the assessment plan?

Outcomes are our expectations of what students should know, understand, and be able to do at the conclusion of a course as well as at the conclusion of an entire program of study. Outcomes may be formulated by individual faculty at the course level, and by the unit faculty at the program (major) level. The University Faculty Senate has already formulated 10 general education outcomes for all students at University of Delaware. In general, intended outcomes at the course level should relate and support intended outcomes of the unit and of the university. Outcome statements usually begin with "Students will be able to...." 

Giving students sufficient opportunities to prove that they have achieved learning outcomes is a responsibility of the faculty. At the individual course level, faculty could actively think about how they expect students to be able to prove their competencies and provide those opportunities as part of the course. Examples of such opportunities include final papers, exams, group and individual presentations, problem-based learning assignments, etc. At the unit level, examples include capstone courses, final papers or presentations, portfolios, and certification examinations. Whether at the course, unit or university levels, it is important that learning outcomes be assessed by two or more methods.

Here is a list of the most common tools.

  1. Exit exams or exit surveys
  2. Professional certification tests or standardized field tests
  3. Periodic Surveys
  4. Focus groups or questionnaires
  5. Standardized examinations
  6. Locally developed exams
  7. Oral exams or interviews
  8. Behavioral observations
  9. Reviews or evaluations by an external examiner
  10. Portfolios
  11. Simulations / computer modeling
  12. Performance appraisals
  13. Rubric or primary trait analysis of work
  14. Capstone Experiences that utilize many of the above tools
  15. Final papers 

Here are two answers:

  1. You can use grades, but only if you have some mechanism for verifying that the grades mean the same thing among all those who assign them for a given assignment or course. This process is often called "norming" and it usually involves multiple instructors working with "primary trait matrices" or some other tool for comparing how a student work artifact is evaluated among instructors. There is an entire book about the use of grades as assessment measures: Walvoord, Barbara, & Anderson, Virginia Johnson. (1998). Effective grading: A tool for learning and assessment. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  2. You cannot use grades to verify that the objectives for a given assignment or course have been met because the person assigning the grades is the same person who is offering the grades as verification. So, the bottom line is that, while no one wants to say that instructors can't be trusted or that grades don't "mean anything," grades are not regarded as a convincing assessment measure in and of themselves. (Unless, of course, you verify what the grades mean as described above.) Grades are often used as an assessment measure in conjunction with other measures, but using them is frankly a "red flag" to accrediting agencies. 

The Faculty Senate approved the GenEd goals and ultimately, it is every instructor's responsibility to instill the knowledge, skills, and abilities into students as a result of their University of Delaware experience. Although, the general education courses are often completed during the first two years of learning, we have identified the "core" knowledge that should be spread across all programs.

The connection between learning in the General Education program and learning in the major is built into the Middle States requirements for institutional accreditation. We must demonstrate that the "core" skills are embedded throughout a student's educational experience. For example, a core General Education outcome is that students will be able to work and learn collaboratively. At the unit level, the learning outcome might be: Leadership students are able to work effectively and constructively within a team structure. At the course level, the learning outcome might be: Leadership students can prepare a team presentation that accurately and effectively analyzes the leadership challenges facing the state of Delaware.

Assessment and Accreditation

Many individual academic programs, in almost every college on campus, already undergo accreditation procedures. You can find a list of these programs and their accrediting organization on our Agency page. Additionally, the University of Delaware undergoes accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

Assessment will be the major focus of our next Middle States accreditation visit. For most if not all accreditation agencies, assessment has become a targeted focus. ABET, NCATE, AACSB and NCLEC visiting teams, to name a few, predominately spend their time delving into how units measured outcomes (hopefully in at least two ways), and the changes made as a result of findings. Of course, this means that all units that are part of an accreditation visit must, first, identify their outcomes

The essentials are pretty simple. A program must view itself as an integrated, coherent educational experience designed to produce specific learning outcomes in the students who experience it. The faculty must agree upon and define these outcomes and agree upon and define the performance indicators that will enable them to know if the outcomes have been achieved by the students in the program.

Then, once a functional consensus is reached by faculty about what they want students to learn and how they will recognize success in students, they must design and implement an assessment process for the program.

This process entails devising the means of measuring or detecting the performance indicators identified as evidence of learning. (These "means" are often called assessment instruments or measures.) Then the program faculty members conduct the assessment measures or instruments and analyze or otherwise consider the results of the assessments.

Lastly, the faculty members employ the results of the assessments to drive reflection upon and, perhaps, refinement of the design of the original educational experience. (This is the "closing the loop" part.) Other components of this process include assessing the effectiveness of the program itself and integrating into the assessment mix the input of key external constituencies. These "external constituencies," by the way, can be both industry councils to service areas within the institution itself (e.g., English, math, chemistry, etc.)

As mentioned above, academic support units, such as student services, must also have assessment plans. They way they go about assessing effectiveness is slightly different than the way academic units do it. Support units also articulate outcomes, but not all are of the "skills, knowledge, attitude" nature seen in academic setting. For instance, support units might also set outcomes goals for number of students served, the speed with which certain services are rendered, or the percentage of freshman who participated in mentoring or advising initiatives.

Learning about assessment, participating in the development and implementation of your program's assessment plan and participating in general education assessment, and helping keep everyone's mind focused on the point of assessment, which is the improvement of student learning. All these are part of a faculty member's professional responsibilities.