The WHY of Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes in a Nutshell

By Dr. José Ricardo-Osorio, Modern Languages Department

Angelo (1995) best defined outcomes assessment of student learning as:

An ongoing process aimed at understanding and improving student learning. It involves making our expectations explicit to the public; setting appropriate criteria and high standards for learning quality; systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well performance matches those expectations and standards; and using the resulting information to document, explain, and improve performance. (p.7)

Over the past 20 years, outcomes assessment of student learning has been central to the accountability debate in higher education (Astin, 1987). Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, pressure for accountability from the government, taxpayers, and policymakers initiated a systematic student outcomes assessment movement that has increasingly made higher education institutions responsible for documenting the quality of their students’ learning. Consequently, colleges and universities are required to evaluate and report not only what students have learned, but also how they can use their acquired knowledge (Banta, Black, Kahn, & Jackson, 2004).

As the outcomes assessment movement began to permeate higher education, the definition of institutional excellence assumed a new meaning (Frye, 1999). Astin (1987) claimed that at first institutional excellence was documented solely by endowment size, campus appearance, and faculty qualifications. However, the emerging assessment movement forced higher education institutions to redefine institutional excellence in terms that directly addressed the student learning process (Nichols, 1995). Thus, the increased focus on student outcomes assessment and accountability has resulted in a learning-based model that underscores the importance of curricular planning that leads to better student performance (Frye, 1999).

This transition to a learning-based model has also affected the criteria for institutional accreditation. Since the late 1980s, accreditation agencies have requested that their affiliated institutions submit a section on student learning assessment within their self-study plan (Gratch-Lindauer, 2002; Hatfield, 2001). Consequently, in many accrediting regions, departments and academic units are required to document their students’ progress through well-thoughtout assessment strategies. These assessment strategies include program outcomes and defined assessment measures, as well as evidence of how the assessment results are used to improve learning (Friedlander & Serban, 2004).

To assist institutions in appraising their assessment strategies, Astin, Banta and Cross (1993) proposed nine principles of good practice that can be used to develop a learning outcomes assessment plan. In their view, the plan should: 1) contain educational values, 2) regard learning as a multidimensional phenomenon that occurs over time, 3) have clearly stated outcomes, 4) regard outcomes and the experiences causing those outcomes as equally important, 5) consider assessment as ongoing, 6) include different campus constituencies in the evaluation efforts, 7) illuminate questions that people really care about, 8) be part of a large set of conditions that provoke change, and 9) be accountable to students and to the public.

Ideally, learning outcomes assessment plans should be congruent with the college or university mission statement, and should reflect the real educational objectives of the institution (Erford & Moore-Thomas, 2003). Learning assessment methods described in the plan must also reflect proposed learning outcomes (Kezar, 2000). These learning outcomes must describe exactly what students are expected to do with their acquired academic skills (Friedlander & Serban, 2004; Frye, 1999). The plan must also provide a rationale for assessment procedures and explicitly state who will assess the outcomes (Nord, 2004). Finally, the assessment results must be used to improve teaching, learning, and the curriculum (Astin, Banta, & Cross, 1993; López, 2000; Maki, 2002).


Angelo, T. (1995). Reassessing (and defining) assessment. The AAHE Bulletin, 48(2),7-9.

Astin, A. W. (1987). Assessment, value-added and educational excellence. New Directions for Higher Education, (59), 89-107.

Astin, A. W., Banta, T. W., & Cross, P. (1993). Principles of good practice for assessing student learning. Washington, DC: American Association for Higher Education Assessment Forum.

Banta, T. W., Black, K. E., Kahn, S., & Jackson, J. E. (2004). A perspective on good practice in community college assessment. In A. M. Serban, & J. Friedlander (Eds.), Developing and implementing assessment of student learning outcomes (pp. 5-16). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Erford, B. T., & Moore-Thomas, C. (2003). Program evaluation and outcome assessment: Documenting the worth of educational programs. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED480072)

Friedlander, J., & Serban, A. M. (2004). Meeting the challenges of assessing student learning outcomes. New Directions for Community Colleges, (126), 101-109.

Frye, R. (1999). Assessment, accountability, and student learning outcomes. Retrieved July 25, 2004, from

Gratch-Lindauer, B. (2002). Comparing the regional accreditation standards: Outcomes assessment and other trends. Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28(1-2), 14-25.

Hatfield, S. R. (2001). The student learning self-study: Choices and opportunities. New Directions for Higher Education, (113), 23-33.

Kezar, A. J. (2000). Teaching and learning: ERIC trends, 1999-2000. Washington, DC: ERIC Clearinghouse on Higher Education. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED446 654)

López, C. L. (2002). Assessment of student learning: Challenges and strategies. The Journal of Academic Librarianship, 28(6), 356-367.

Maki, P. L. (2002). Developing an assessment plan to learn about student learning. Retrieved April 23, 2004, from

Nichols, J. O. (1995). Assessment planning. In J. O. Nichols (Ed.), A practitioner's handbook for institutional effectiveness and student outcomes assessment implementation. (3rd ed.) (pp. 123-137). New York: Agathon Press.

Nord, L. L. (2004). Getting staff excited about assessment. Assessment Update, 16(6), 9-10.

Dr. José Ricardo, Chair