In establishing their assessment plans, programs that elect to use portfolios to assess student learning outcomes are advised to engage in a two-part preparatory process, 1) developing a curriculum map and 2) determining assessment and evaluation methods for learning outcomes.

1. Developing a Curriculum Map

Checking the alignment between your program’s existing curricular offerings and expected learning outcomes is an important part of the process for clarifying what and how students are learning. A relatively easy way to do this is by organizing the information into a matrix, indicating when a particular outcome is addressed in a given course. This illustration, sometimes called a “curriculum map,” provides a view of how individual courses are related to the program learning outcomes (see Table 1). Once completed, this map can serve as a tool for determining what type of evidence can be collected to most effectively assess student learning and where it can be found efficiently.

Table 1. Hypothetical Curriculum Map for a Non-capstone Major

A. Learning Outcomes for the “General Science” Major
Students completing the “General Science” major will be able to:

  1. master a broad set of knowledge concerning fundamentals in the basic areas of the discipline;
  2. solve problems by identifying the essential parts of a problem and formulating a strategy for solving the problem;
  3. understand the objective of scientific experiments, properly carry out the experiments, and appropriately record and analyze the results;
  4. communicate laboratory experiment concepts and results through effective written and oral skills.
B. Curriculum Map for “General Science” (L=low emphasis; M=moderate emphasis; H=high emphasis)
Required Major Courses Learning Outcome #1 Learning Outcome #2 Learning Outcome #3 Learning Outcome #4
GenSci A L H
GenSci B L M H
GenSci C M L H
GenSci D H M
GenSci E L M H
GenSci F H

2. Determining Assessment and Evaluation Methods for Learning Outcomes

Once learning outcomes have been “mapped” with required courses for the major, the next step is to identify appropriate assessment and evaluation methods for those learning outcomes. For example, in the case of our hypothetical “general science” major, program faculty have determined that the department will set up an electronic portfolio of work for each student majoring in chemistry. The department’s assessment committee, which will be formed with rotating membership, will determine what materials (including copies of final exams, laboratory reports, term papers, etc.) will be electronically collected each quarter and placed by the department in the student’s electronic file. Assessments of student learning outcomes will use the materials in the student portfolios, as well as other individual student activities (e.g., oral presentations, poster sessions, etc.). The specific assessment and evaluation methods for each learning outcome can be summarized in table form (see Table 2).

Table 2. Evaluation Methods for the Hypothetical “General Science” Major Learning Outcomes

Learning Outcomes Evaluation Methods
1 Final exams in GenSci C and D will be reviewed for randomly selected students for appropriate content knowledge
2 A program portfolio of final exams in GenSci A and E and laboratory reports in GenSci E will be evaluated.
3 A program portfolio of laboratory reports in GenSci B, C, and E will be reviewed.
4 Sample experimental reports in GenSci B, D, and F will be compiled and evaluated. Student presentations in GenSci B and F will be evaluated.

The assessment and evaluation methods indicated in Table 2 all focus on direct evidence of student learning. However, various types of indirect evidence (i.e., that provided by current and former students via survey or interview regarding to their perspectives on curricular content, self-perceptions of their learning, preparation for disciplinary-based careers, etc.) may also provide valuable information to program faculty and complement well your program’s assessment plan.

3. Establishing Operational Definitions for Learning Outcomes

The next two-step process is to operationally define the characteristics of each learning outcome:

Step 1: For each learning outcome that will be featured within a particular assessment cycle, clearly define each characteristic to be assessed. This will enable faculty who are responsible for conducting the evaluation will to work from a common frame of reference when evaluating student work. Take, for example, the learning outcome “Students completing the major will demonstrate effective written communication skills.” Effective writing could be illustrated by the following five characteristics:

  • Presentation: How clear and concise is the argument?
  • Development: How effective is the structure?
  • Persuasiveness: How well does the student defend the argument?
  • Mechanics: What is the quality of the student’s writing?
  • Interest: How well does the student maintain the reader’s interest?
Step 2: Describe the different levels of achievement for each characteristic of the learning outcome(s) that will be assessed during a particular assessment cycle. For example, what do faculty concur constitutes “excellent,” “good,” “fair,” or “poor” performance within each of the five characteristics of writing noted in Step 2? For instance, excellent performance in writing “development” might be defined by logical and cohesive organization of an argument; seamless development of the argument; lack of significantly extraneous elements; and inclusion of evidence that contributes to persuasiveness of the argument.

What’s next?

Once selected student learning outcomes have been linked with curricular offerings that are required for the major, preferred assessment and evaluation methods have been determined for learning outcomes that are a focal point during a given assessment period, and consensus on operational definitions for selected learning outcomes has been achieved, the faculty who are responsible for completing the evaluation (typically those who serve, on a rotating basis, on the department’s curriculum or assessment committees) are ready to begin their evaluation.

Upon completing their review of student work, next steps for program faculty are to:

  1. Reflect on how assessment findings may inform pedagogical practice and/or curricular planning. An important part of this process involves engaging faculty colleagues and, as applicable, students and/or other educational partners in discussing the results before final interpretations are formed. Questions you may want to address include:
    • What are the most valuable insights gained from the assessment results?
    • What are the most important conclusions about the results?
    • What strengths (and weaknesses) in student learning do the results indicate?
    • What implications are there for enhancing teaching and learning?
  2. Determine the effectiveness and limitations of the assessment process. Questions to consider could include:
    • Did the process define, as well as answer, questions that are important to understanding and enhancing student learning? If not, why?
    • Were faculty and students motivated to participate in the assessment process? If not, why?
    • Were the assessment methods easily implemented? If not, what improvements could be made?
    • In what ways was the assessment process especially effective?
    • What should (or will) change about the process? Why?
  3. Communicate findings and associated implications with those who are involved with the program.
  4. Incorporate discussion of assessment process and findings within 8-year program review.

 Summarizing Assessment Activities for Program Review