Frequently Asked Questions

Student Outcome & Success Report FAQ

Assessment Basics

1. What is Assessment?

"Assessment is commonly assumed to be about finding problems and then fixing them with new initiatives . . . . Good assessments also identify effective practices already in place and guide educators in protecting and maintaining those practices . . . . Identifying and protecting effective practices can be as important a function of assessment as identifying and improving areas of weakness" (Swing & Coogan, 2010, p. 7).

In general, student learning assessment is a systematic, ongoing process designed to answer the question, "Can the program demonstrate that students have attained the desired learning outcomes?" This process includes establishing measurable outcomes for expected student learning; gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well student achievement matches the expectations; and using the results to inform decisions about program modifications to improve learning. Assessment focuses on aggregate, program-level data, not on individual students or courses.

Because the faculty are responsible for the curriculum, they also have primary responsibility for the development, implementation, and maintenance of all academic assessment activities.

2. Why must assess our programs?

Assessment answers questions such as:

  • Are our students learning the most important things we want them to learn? Are they learning what they need to succeed in future endeavors?
  • If our students are not learning the important things, what are the barriers or stumbling blocks? What changes can we make (e.g., to the curriculum, pedagogy, use of technology) to help students learn more effectively?

Program assessment provides the faculty with data to make informed decisions about program strengths and areas of needed improvement. Thus, individual programs and the institution as a whole benefit from a process of continuous improvement. The assessment process also benefits students by making expectations for program-level learning explicit. Last, it enables ISU to provide stakeholders with evidence of the quality and strengths of our programs and of our commitment to enhancing student success at ISU.

3. Which programs must we assess?

The Higher Learning Commission requires us to assess all undergraduate, graduate, post-graduate, and certificate programs.  However, if your program’s core curriculum is a subset of another program that already is being assessed, you do not need to submit a Student Learning Summary Report for it.

4. Will assessment results be used for faculty evaluation?

No. Assessment results are used to determine what the program as a whole can do to improve student learning. When there is evidence that students are not achieving the expected outcomes, the faculty members collectively identify areas for improvement.

5. What are the general components of an assessment plan?

While the Assessment Council is not prescriptive in its approach to assessment, it has developed a general framework for assessment. This framework reflects accepted best practices, is informed by the literature on assessment, and provides the flexibility for programs to adapt the model to provide information that is useful to them. The Assessment and Accreditation Coordinator is available to assist you as you design and implement your assessment plan.

In general, the steps of assessment are:

  • Identify the desired student learning outcomes for the program. (Note: You are not required to have a particular number of outcomes unless your specialized accreditor requires you to. But the typical program will have 5-8 outcomes.
  • Identify the measures—that is, assignments (papers, presentations, projects, etc.), exams, and/or experiences(internships, practica, service learning activities, etc.)--through which students will demonstrate their achievement of each outcome.
  • Specify the performance criteria for each outcome—that is, the score or level that students as a whole should earn on the assignment/activity.
  • Map the curriculum and educational activities to the outcomes. This activity helps you to ensure that students have ample opportunities to achieve each outcome.
  • Gather evidence about how well students are meeting the outcomes, keeping in mind that collecting data from a representative sample of students is acceptable and that you don't have to collect evidence on every outcome every year unless required to do so by a specialized accreditor. Each program should have a plan for rotating through the outcomes on a regular schedule.
  • Use the evidence to make decisions about any modifications necessary to improve student learning.

For more information on writing an assessment plan, review the guidelines for the Outcomes Library, the Curriculum Map, and the Student Learning Summary Report Form at

6. What is the difference between an objective and an outcome?

Generally, educational objectives are understood to be the broad, overarching knowledge, skills, attitudes, and behaviors the program prepares graduates to achieve, while outcomes describe the specific knowledge, skills, behaviors, and attitudes that students should acquire as they progress through the program.

No matter what you call them, outcomes are stated in the format of <one action verb> + <one something>. The action verb describes a specific performance (e.g., analyze, apply, design), and the "something" is the focus of the learning experience (e.g., steps of the design process, chemical reaction, scientific method).

      For example:

  • Articulate the historical assumptions, central ideas, and dominant criticisms of the key dramatic periods using illustrations from pertinent plays.
  • Apply principles of evidence-based medicine to determine clinical diagnoses and formulate and implement acceptable treatment modalities.
7. What measures should I use to determine how well students are achieving my program’s outcomes?

If at all possible, focus on embedded assessment, which means using existing assignments, exams, performance evaluations, and other educational experiences.   Since your goal is to demonstrate that your graduating students have achieved program outcomes, you may elect to use high impact culminating experiences such as capstone courses, theses, portfolios, and internships.

8. What is direct assessment? Indirect? Which method should we use?

Direct assessment methods provide for the direct examination or observation of student knowledge or skills. Examples include presentations, research papers, criterion-referenced exams, portfolios, simulations, and clinical experiences.

Indirect assessments offer information about students’ attitudes, dispositions, activities, placement rates, and so on. Preferred measures include surveys, questionnaires, interviews, and focus groups.

A good assessment plan relies primarily on direct assessment but incorporates some indirect assessment as well, since knowing what students think about their educational experiences can provide direction for program improvement as well.  The "ideal" methods are those that are a best fit between program needs, satisfactory validity, and affordability (time, effort, and money). In assessing achievement of student learning outcomes, it is crucial to triangulate – use multiple methods and sources of data to maximize validity and reduce bias of any one approach. Also, there must be a logical link between the assessment method and the learning outcomes. For example, it would not be appropriate to assess public speaking ability through a multiple-choice exam.

9. We already assign course grades. Isn't that evidence of student learning?

Course grades may be based in part on factors not directly related to learning outcomes, such as attendance or class participation, or the subtraction of points for an assignment that is submitted late. Also, course grades are a composite of student success in meeting a faculty member's expectations for a specific course, not an indication of student achievement of specific, program-level learning outcomes. Therefore, we typically cannot determine what students know or are able to do by looking only at their course grades.

However, it is not impossible, so long as the assignments that compose the course grade are calibrated to the program’s learning outcomes.  See for a visual illustration of using a rubric to produce both grades and assessment data.

10. Must I report on every outcome every year?

Unless you are required to do so by a specialized accrediting agency, no. But you should have a plan to assess all outcomes at least once during the time it takes for a cohort of students to complete the program (e.g., within four years for an undergraduate program).


Contacts & Links

1. How can I stay up to date on assessment requirements and initiatives?

Visit the Assessment Website at Review the Assessment Council’s minutes ( on a regular basis.  And stay in   touch with your Council representative. See the list of members on the website at

2. What can I find on the Assessment Website?

You’ll find information about:

  • The Assessment Council
  • The Assessment Leadership Team
  • Assessment Plan Guidelines
  • Assessment Resources, such as useful websites and information about writing student learning outcomes and securing grants.
  • ISU’s Student Learning Summary Reports (for each program, college, and the university)
3. Who do I contact with additional questions?

Contact Kelley Woods-Johnson, Assessment & Accreditation Coordinator, at x7975 or


Kelley Woods-Johnson, Ph.D. (she/her)
Director, Assessment & Program Effectiveness
Academic Affairs
Indiana State University
Rankin 243
(812) 237-7975


I am happy to meet to discuss your assessment needs.  Feel free to email, call, or set up a virtual or in-person appointment. 

FCTE Office Hours Spring 2024

  • Wednesdays, 8:30am-10:30am

Schedule is subject to change. Call or email ahead to verify if desired.