Assessing student learning in the core and the major

Owing to the current period of curricular revision, spurred largely by the implantation of the Silver Core Curriculum and its integration into the major, and the demands for sustained assessment of student learning, this page offers a step-by-step plan for undergraduate program assessment planning.

As a reminder, the assessment of courses satisfying Silver Core Objectives is now mandatory, and the guidelines for such (Core Assessment Guidelines [2015-2020]) are available online. A department offering Core courses must assess and report on these courses every five years.

Moreover, in fall 2016 the University implemented a three-point assessment model, intended to measure student learning at the introductory, mid-, and senior levels in undergraduate degree program curricula. Program assessment must be reported annually.

This model is being phased in over the next few years, according to the aligned student learning assessment schedule, which accounts for both Core and program assessments. This schedule also features guidelines and requirements for participating departments.


  • For Core courses, the results of assessments of student learning are due by the eighth week of the semester following the course(s) (i.e., the results of fall assessments are due in mid-March, and the results of spring assessments are due in mid-October).
  • Program assessment reports are due by the end of January each year.

With these tasks in mind, this page has two ends:

  1. To assist faculty in aligning simultaneous assessments for their Core courses and their program-level student learning outcomes (SLOs)
  2. To provide guidance in course-level assessment tools

If program-level and course-level SLOs are supportive of one another and if appropriate assessment strategies are implemented in targeted courses as suggested in this document, a department may have a system by which to collect Core and program assessment data for the duration of its program review cycle. Finally, while this document is intended to provide faculty with a practical guide to developing a dual assessment plan for Core courses and their degree programs, personalized workshops aimed towards departmental curricula and needs are always encouraged.

Steps for undergraduate program assessment planning

  • Step 1: Identify both the Specialized Knowledge and the Intellectual Skills

    Identify both the Specialized Knowledge and the Intellectual Skills that students will be able to demonstrate after completing your curriculum.

    Specialized Knowledge. Specialized knowledge refers to the knowledge, skills, and values that are specific to your discipline.

    Intellectual Skills. Intellectual Skills refer to the skills and abilities that all University students hone through General Education/Core Curriculum, particularly the fundamental competencies of composition and communication, quantitative reasoning, and critical thinking and use of information. These Intellectual Skills correspond to Silver Core Objectives 1-3.

    Designing an effective assessment plan

    1. First and foremost, your degree program and course-specific SLOs should be aligned and complementary. In other words, a degree-program SLO should be supported by the SLOs of individual courses, and the course-specific SLOs should reflect to a certain degree one or more of the program learning outcomes.
    2. This alignment allows the assessment of student learning in an individual course to provide data for the program SLOs. No other direct assessment of student work or performance is then needed, and if additional program-level assessment data is desired, your faculty and staff can focus on exit or alumni surveys, job or graduate or professional school placement, time-to-degree rates, course evaluations, etc. In fact, many of these data will be provided for academic departments by the Office of the Provost each fall.
    3. Thirdly, although all University courses included in the General Catalog must have published SLOs, you should anticipate the value of required courses for the major: targeting required courses rather than electives will allow you to measure student learning within a cohort of majors at various points in your curriculum.
    4. Finally, once your SLOs are written and your assessment methods decided upon, you should endeavor to keep them in place for the duration of your University Program Review cycle. This will ensure that you collect consistent, historical data from year to year and posit sound, data-driven conclusions in your self-study for Program Review.
  • Step 2: Convergence of Knowledge and Skills

    Consider where Specialized Knowledge and Intellectual Skills converge in your curriculum, and identify a gateway, a mid-curriculum, and a Capstone/senior course in your curriculum.

    Whichever courses you choose, these three moments should allow you to assess both types of knowledge and skills in a longitudinal fashion from majors' progress from 100-level courses to his/her senior year. Pay particular attention to the fundamental competencies of written and oral communication and critical thinking and use of information.

    If your department offers Silver Core Vein II (Core Objectives 4-8) or Vein III (Core Objectives 9-12) courses, these may represent convenient opportunities for introductory and/or mid-curriculum assessment, particularly if the course(s) is also required for the major. If you offer Core Objective 13 or 14 courses, these are ideal for senior-level assessment.

    Case study

    The Communication Studies department has seven published program Student Learning Outcomes: Students will be able to do:

    1. Demonstrate knowledge of the communication studies discipline, including its theories, concepts, and how the study of communication is applied to academic and non-academic settings
    2. Demonstrate competency in systematic inquiry and research methods including asking questions, finding appropriate resources and/or conducting independent data gathering and analysis, while understanding the limits of research methodologies
    3. Demonstrate competency and confidence in oral message development and delivery, including determining and focusing message purpose, organizing appropriate information, and effectively presenting a message appropriate to specific audiences and contexts
    4. Demonstrate competency and confidence in written message development including adapting message to specific contexts, mediums, and audiences
    5. Demonstrate competency in communication in relational settings (interpersonal, intercultural, group, and organizational environments)
    6. Demonstrate competency in communication for public advocacy contexts
    7. Demonstrate competency in being an ethical communicator in for our increasingly diverse and globalized world

    Owing to a range of Silver Core offerings, this department has many opportunities for assessing student learning in gateway, mid-curriculum, and Capstone/senior courses. For example:


    COM 113 (Fundamentals of Speech Communication) addresses several introductory-level knowledge and skills in its SLOs, including "principle methods of inquiry [and] guiding theoretical perspectives," identifying "basic public speaking principles, including audience analysis, rhetorical devices, persuasive appeals, and features of argument," and such skills as "problem-solving, decision-making, and conflict management." In sum, the SLOs of COM 113 underpin many program-level SLOs (at least 1-5 above) and collectively offer a moment for assessing various Intellectual Skills.


    The SLOs of COM 311 (Communication Research Methods) largely support program SLO 2 above and thus offer an effective assessment moment for Intellectual Skills. At the same, the SLOs of COM 407 (Communication Between the Sexes) and 412 (Intercultural Communication) specifically support program SLO 7 and offer opportunities to assess Specialized Knowledge.


    Finally, the SLOs of two Capstone options, COM 468 (Facilitating Difficult Discussions) and 475 (Communication and Community Engagement), specially address program SLO 6, while generally reflecting most of the B.A. program's SLOs. Being Capstones, they combine Specialized Knowledge and Intellectual Skills.

  • Step 3: Review syllabi for your gateway, mid-curriculum and Capstone/senior courses

    Review the syllabi for your gateway, mid-curriculum, and Capstone/senior courses to identify Specialized Knowledge and Individual Skills that are common both across the three points in the curriculum and in multiple sections, if offered, of the chosen courses.

    • Keep in mind these chosen courses should collectively support your degree program SLOs.
    • It can be difficult to plan effective assessments or expect informative data if multiple sections of the same course ask students to complete unrelated assignments or feature disparate SLOs. This is why departments should ensure the catalog copy of a given course includes a common set of SLOs that all faculty teaching it can use, in addition to any SLOs that they wish to add to their own iterations of the course.

    Case study

    Take, for example, the B.S. in Biochemistry, whose gateway course (BCH 110) and Senior Thesis ensure a continuity of Specialized Knowledge and Intellectual Skills.


    BCH 110 asks students to conduct critical reading of texts that present ethical dilemmas, to engage critically with others' opinions, and to engage with the real-world impact of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology issues (e.g., GMOs) and to write and present on scientific papers. These SLOs can be reflected through various assignments, depending on the faculty member teaching BCH 110, but these outcomes are vital to a student's progress in the program.


    Moreover, the mid-curriculum course (BCH 400) focuses on student learning of discipline-specific material and thus continues the foundation of Specialized Knowledge that majors - having learning the basics of research and written and oral communication in BCH 101 - will carry to their Senior Theses.


    This is because when students complete the Senior Thesis in Biochemistry, they must conduct appropriate research, produce the written thesis, and present on their methodology and three different audiences with quite different agenda (faculty, students, and off-campus/professional representatives).

  • Step 4: Choose tools and strategies for course assessments

    Choose tools and strategies for course assessments and have faculty teaching your gateway, mid-curriculum, and Capstone/senior courses agree on them.

    The list of assessment tools and strategies included is intended to provide you with suggested models for implementing course-level assessment. As described in Step 3, if faculty members agree on both the types of assessment to be implemented within various sections of a course and across the gateway, mid-curriculum, and Capstone/senior-level courses, then your assessment data will be all the more consistent and informative.

    Other good assessment tools are professional, standardized examinations (if expected in your discipline), course evaluations, and alumni surveys.

    Course assessment information
    Do your chosen courses rely on: Then a sound assessment tool is:
    Writing (including a culminating thesis) or oral presentations? Rubrics, of which University Assessment offer many models (LINK) and which can be shared with students ahead of time. In order to save time and energy, rubrics can include both an assessment scale (0-4 is recommended) and a grading scale.
    Tests to cover discipline-specific material Common questions, or at least questions designed with a common agenda to measure student mastery of, e.g., core ideas, principles, or analytical skills
    Knowledge retained from pre-requisites or complicated material that the student must retain going forward in the program A pre- and post-test (ungraded or not) that measures that retention
    Retention and/or development of experiential learning or values important to thinking in your discipline A pre- and post-survey that collects student input on these experiences and values. The post-survey can be administered as an addendum on the University's course evaluations, and the same software can be used to disseminate the pre-survey, if desired.
    Complicated lectures or the introduction of a large amount of material So-called 'muddiest point' surveys that ask the students to identify in a given week or at the end of a given unit in the course to identify specific concepts, methods, etc. that remain unclear to them.

    Other good assessment tools are professional, standardized examinations (if expected in your discipline), course evaluations and alumni surveys.

  • Step 5: Implementation and data collection

    Implement your chosen course assessment tools and strategies and focus on collecting data for course and program SLOs on a rotating schedule.

    Again, use the requirements of Silver Core assessment to your advantage: if you offer courses satisfying Core Objectives 9-14, then conducting assessment in these courses should inform the measurement of your program-level SLOs as well. Programs do not need to conduct full-scale assessment of all learning outcomes each and every year; if your degree program has, for example, 5 SLOs encompassing a range of Specialized Knowledge and Intellectual Skills, you do not need to seek quantitative data on all 5 learning outcomes each year.

    Rather, determine a convenient cycle of assessment, in which your faculty can focus on 1-2 program SLOs per year. An effective means of designing this cycle is to consider the frequency of your gateway, mid-curriculum, and Capstone/senior-level courses: are any offered only in fall or spring? if offered in both, does enrollment tend to increase in one semester versus another? It may also help to try to the extent possible to distribute evenly assessment efforts over the fall and spring semesters.

    Finally, make use of the data that you collect regarding student learning. The point of assessment is not to find something wrong that must be repaired; rather, it is to identify where your students are particularly successful or challenged in demonstrating and applying the knowledge and skills in your degree program. It is up to you to decide how to revise your courses and curriculum based on this information.