Program Assessment

Program-level outcomes assessment is evaluation of overall student learning within a program, rather than particular instructors, courses, or individual students. Program assessment yields information about students as a group and reveals how students build and integrate learning as they move through a program of study.

Assessing student learning at the program level often means simply shifting the lens through which faculty look at their own teaching. Instead of focusing on what particular faculty members are teaching, what courses students are taking, or what readings or assignments students are expected to complete, the program assesses what students are learning—the outcomes of faculty members’ teaching and students' work.

The Steps of Program Assessment

Assessment, whether at the course, program, division, or university level, can be viewed as a four-step cycle:*


*As described by Linda Suskie, vice president of the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE) in “Getting Started with Student Learning Assessment,” MSCHE Workshop, September 15, 2010.

The first step is a clear statement of learning goals for the graduates of a program. Until assessed and proved, these learning outcomes are properly described as “intended” or “expected” outcomes. What do you want your graduates to know (cognitive objectives), to value (affective objectives), and to do (behavioral objectives) when they have completed your program? You probably intend for students to acquire specific knowledge and skills, but you may also aim to cultivate certain attitudes in students, such as valuing civic engagement or willingness to consider different points of view.

Once program goals have been articulated, faculty members in a program can consider the learning opportunities their students are being offered to achieve the goals. Are all the learning goals adequately addressed in the existing curriculum? Have some been omitted or inadequately represented? The relationship between learning goals and curriculum can be systematically examined through an exercise called curriculum mapping (PDF).

The next step is finding methods to determine whether students in a program are achieving the learning goals that the program’s faculty have articulated. Faculty members should choose assessment methods that help them answer questions they have about student learning.

The last step of the cycle is to use the assessment evidence to improve the program. Faculty members are always making decisions about teaching and learning, often on the basis of informal observations and discussions. Learning assessment provides more objective and systematic evidence for faculty members to use to inform and shape their decisions. This is one goal of assessment—providing data for informed decision making.

Assessing Student Learning in Programs at The New School

Degree-granting programs at The New School evaluate students' learning outcomes and provide a summary of these assessments to the Provost’s Office on an annual basis. Programs may choose between two different frameworks for their student learning assessment. The standard model asks programs to select one or more student learning outcomes to assess each year and choose assessment methods for determining the extent to which students have met those outcomes. Programs using the standard model submit an annual plan and an annual report.  

In fall 2014, a new framework was developed to highlight the role played by faculty curiosity about student learning and program effectiveness. Using this approach, a program asks one or more research questions related to student learning and selects assessment methods to address the question(s) on this template. Programs report on their findings and any changes planned as a result of the findings using this template

In designing an inquiry-based assessment project, program faculty may want to begin by thinking about changes in the program currently under consideration, or may take this opportunity to pose new questions about the program.  The following are examples of questions that a program might ask:

  • What pedagogical methods are used by program faculty?  Do these methods align with program goals, and are they optimal for the types of student learning desired?
  • Where is project-based teaching occurring in the program? Is it used effectively? What classes could incorporate project-based learning?
  • Is course X effective as a program requirement?
  • Are courses sequenced effectively within the program?
  • Do students have adequate opportunities to practice their writing (or other) skills?
  • Do students effectively transfer, integrate, and build upon skills and knowledge as they move from lower-level to upper-level courses?
  • Can students effectively reflect upon their learning and articulate its relevance for their career goals?
  • Would integration of student learning across the program be improved if the senior capstone was expanded from one semester to two? 

This inquiry-based approach is drawn from the work of Peggy Maki. Maki, P.L., Assessing for Learning: Building a Sustainable Commitment Across the Institution Sterling, VA: Stylus Publishing (2010).

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