Frequently Asked Questions


What is a “learning outcome”?

Simply put, a learning outcome is the knowledge, skill, value or attitude that results from a formal course, a group of courses as in a major or minor, a group of general education courses or out of class experiences. Effective communication, critical thinking and problem solving are common learning outcomes as may be fluency in a foreign language, demonstrated knowledge of a particular subject area or skill using particular laboratory techniques or playing a musical instrument.

Learning outcomes may be planned and expected or may be unintended and unanticipated. Certainly a single course, to say nothing of a major or a group of courses required for distribution, may have multiple learning outcomes. Learning assessment is intended to determine what the learning outcomes, the results, of a particular learning experience or group of experiences have been.


Isn’t “assessment” just a different word for grading?

Not exactly! Grading is certainly assessment, but usually grading is limited to a single course or project and the exams and papers that may be part of the course.

Assessment is broader. Careful assessment will verify whether or not the desired level of knowledge and skill was in fact achieved after the completion of a major or minor.


I already give grades in my classes; why is assessment needed?

Grades are associated with individual courses. But the grades for individual courses may say little about whether a student has been able to connect or integrate the work of several courses or whether a collection of separate courses has been transformed into a coherent whole.

Grades provide little information about whether knowledge gained in one course in one semester has been retained for later use. Assessment is also needed to verify whether the general education goals and expectations of the college for its students have been met.


Why is assessment getting so much attention now?

The clearest answer is that the regional accrediting organizations are demanding with increasing seriousness that institutions of higher education provide evidence of their effectiveness as part of the periodic reaccreditation process.

  • The regional accrediting organizations are trying to protect themselves from encroachment by the U. S. Department of Education which, given the federal dollars involved in federal grants and loans, has been gaining interest in the effectiveness of colleges and universities.
  • The state legislatures in many states are pressing public institutions for evidence that public goals are being met.
  • And, given the cost of a four-year degree, many parents want to know what they are getting for their tuition dollars.


What kinds of evidence are useful for assessment?

Evidence that learning goals are being met may be direct or indirect. Direct evidence is preferable, though indirect evidence can play a helpful supporting role.

Direct evidence that a particular major has met its goals may be:

  1. A senior thesis or other capstone project.
  2. If students are expected to be articulate in public speech, they may be asked to present a summary of their written thesis or project in public and respond to questions.
  3. Alternatively, second semester seniors may be asked to write a general exam in their major (or minor) field, sit for an oral exam by a faculty committee or complete a standardized, commercially prepared field exam.

In any case, the means used to assess the knowledge and skills of majors should when at all possible be an expected component of the major (or minor) requirements. Tacking on assessment activity as a voluntary extra which has no consequences for the student raises questions about participation and motivation and may not reflect accurately what was in fact accomplished in the major.

General education skills and knowledge can be assessed by reviewing samples of completed work or by writing examinations designed to verify learning in desired areas. Most generally, if students are expected to have learned a particular body of knowledge or to have mastered particular skills then verifying evidence should be sought.

Indirect evidence of learning may be as varied:

  1. Exam results for graduate or professional school, prizes won, selection for membership in academic honorary societies and numbers of students admitted to graduate or professional school. Such data may obviously serve to confirm the results of direct assessment but just as obviously are no substitute for the direct assessment of the knowledge and skills resulting from undertaking different fields of study.
  2. Surveys of student satisfaction and perceptions may also provide supportive evidence of learning but are not satisfactory substitutes for direct evidence.


Are some kinds of evidence better than others?

  • Direct evidence intentionally collected is better than indirect evidence.
  • Evidence collected from a whole population or statistically valid sample (from which generalization is possible) is preferable to evidence collected from a self-selected sample. (An example of the latter would be testing only those students who showed up to have free pizza or to collect a gift certificate at the college book store.)
  • Evidence collected as an integral part of a course, major or other requirement is better than evidence collected in extra no-credit activity.


How can we be sure students will be cooperative?

The surest way is to make assessment an expected part of a major, minor or other activity. If taking part in assessment activity is voluntary and discretionary then it will be virtually impossible to generalize about the learning outcomes in a particular population.


What is the connection, if any, between assessment and accreditation?

Every ten years, Washington University is subject to reaccreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, itself a unit of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools.

Prior to the actual reaccreditation, Washington University is “visited” (a more apt word might be “inspected”) by a team of faculty and administrators working on behalf of the Higher Learning Commission. The visiting team asks for and expects to receive evidence supporting the claims that Washington University makes about the knowledge and skills of its students. Customarily, universities have provided much information about budget, facilities, faculty and staff as part of the reaccreditation process. Increasingly, universities are expected to provide evidence of outcomes, results, learning expectations and goals fulfilled.

In addition to accreditation by the Higher Learning Commission, the university’s professional schools are accredited by their respective professional associations. These associations also expect to see evidence of student learning resulting from the careful assessment of learning outcomes.


What happens to (or with) the results of assessment?

The results of assessment are shared with reaccreditation visiting teams and, of course, with appropriate university administrators: department and program chairs, deans and the provost’s office.

Well-designed assessment efforts not only provide information about student learning, but may also yield information relevant to the design and content of the curriculum and the choice of teaching approaches.


What happens if learning outcomes aren’t assessed?

Unsatisfactory or incomplete information may yield a critical visiting team report, a request for additional information, a revisit or, in the worst case, probation. These are not desirable outcomes, so assessment is taken seriously by Washington University and its several schools. In the future, it is also entirely possible that if assessment is not taken seriously there will be budgetary or staffing consequences for the unit or units in question.

But beyond these consequences it is also worth considering that, without careful assessment, there can be little basis for making informed judgments about the advisability of either curriculum or instructional changes.


Is assessment applicable or relevant only to the academic or curricular aspect of the university?

By no means! To the extent that the extracurricular or co-curricular  activities and organizations that students participate in are believed to develop various skills (for example: leadership, communication, problem solving, planning, and interpersonal skills), evidence should be collected through careful assessment to test the existing beliefs.


How can I find out more about assessment?

An increasing number of books and Web pages are available:

Current books include:

  • Trudy W.Banta, Elizabeth A. Jones and Karen E. Black, Designing Effective Assessment: Principles and Profiles of Good Practice (Jossey Bass, 2009)
  • Trudy W. Banta and et al., Building a Scholarship of Assessment (Jossey Bass, 2002)
  • Derek Bok, Our Underachieving Colleges (Princeton University Press, 2006)
  • John Heywood, Assessment in Higher Education (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2000)


Who at Washington University can I talk with to learn more about assessment or to get some questions answered?

Gerhild S. Williams
Vice Provost
One Brookings Drive
Campus Box 1080
St. Louis, MO  63130
(314) 935-5151