UW-Madison: Outcomes Assessment
Contents on This Page
I. Introduction
II. Background
III. UW–Madison's Assessment Approach
IV. UW–Madison Assessment Plan
V. Developing a Departmental Assessment Plan


Academic outcomes assessment is based on a process in which faculty and staff have identified the most appropriate objectives for specific programs, e.g., general education, undergraduate and graduate majors. It employs a wide variety of measurements to discover as accurately as possible whether the department and the institution are achieving the announced objectives in these areas.

The purpose of assessment is to produce feedback to the department, school/college, or administrative unit on the performance of its curriculum, learning process, and/or services, thereby allowing each unit to improve its programs. It is not an evaluation of individual students or of individual faculty or staff.

The goal of this document is to assist chairs and other interested faculty in developing assessment plans at the departmental level. Assessment methods and instrumentation being used by academic units at UW–Madison and other comparable institutions are described here, with the intention that departments will select and/or adapt the methods best suited to their educational goals and programs. An outline of useful steps for developing a departmental assessment plan that can be used by those involved in the assessment process is also provided in this document.


During the last decade, colleges and universities have been called upon by a strong and influential externally driven movement to publicly demonstrate how academic programs continuously improve. National organizations and agencies, and some state legislatures, have been among those demanding more visible accountability and concrete verification that fiscal and human resources invested in educational institutions are being used in ways that result in high quality education. As one means to require accountability, many of these organizations and agencies are requesting that institutions of higher education use assessment of student learning outcomes as a means of demonstrating valuable and/or improving academic programs.

The UW System has required some form of student outcomes assessment from all UW institutions since 1900 in order to demonstrate to the Board of Regents and the legislature that the university is being responsive to the public demand for greater accountability. In addition, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools (NCA), UW–Madison's institutional accrediting agency, adopted student outcomes assessment as one of its requirements in 1993. It mandated that all its affiliated institutions develop a comprehensive institutional assessment plan by June, 1995 and UW–Madison has received NCA approval of its plan. NCA requires that all member institutions employ student outcomes assessment measures in general education and in all undergraduate and graduate majors.

The NCA Commission on Institutions of Higher Education identified ten characteristics of an effective program to assess student academic achievement:

  1. Successful assessment flows from the institution's mission and educational purposes.

  2. Successful assessment emerges from a conceptual framework.

  3. Successful assessment is marked by faculty ownership and responsibility.

  4. Successful assessment has institution-wide support.

  5. Successful assessment relies on multiple measures.

  6. Successful assessment provides feedback to students and the institution.

  7. Successful assessment is cost-effective.

  8. Successful assessment does not restrict or inhibit goals of access, equity, and diversity established by the institution.

  9. Successful assessment leads to improvement.

  10. Successful assessment includes a process for evaluating the assessment program.

NCA recognizes that faculty determination of the crucial issues of each academic program is essential and that student outcomes assessment planning is most effectively devised by faculty and staff at the departmental level. A successful program will also address the need for students to understand the purpose of assessment.

The growth of the assessment movement during the last decade has demonstrated that assessment is becoming an important tool for better understanding and responding to the needs of an increasingly diverse student population. Colleges and universities are increasingly turning to both nationally developed and locally designed assessment methods and instruments as a means of improving teaching and learning practices. The rationale for the increased focus on the development of assessment programs in academic majors is grounded in the belief that collecting systematic data improves awareness of how well students can integrate content, skills, and attitudes. Assessment research has provided useful information and insight on how students learn and what students learn, going beyond traditional measures that provide useful but limited student and programmatic data.

In responding to NCA's mandated outcomes assessment requirement, many research institutions developed assessment plans that described their institutional strategies for incorporating outcomes assessment into academic units throughout campus. These institutions vary greatly in the progress they have made in developing and implementing their respective institutional and department assessment plans. For example, because of legislative or governing board mandates, The University of Washington, the University of Colorado, and the University of Iowa have already developed and implemented institutional assessment plans in all undergraduate majors. However, these universities remain in the early phases of incorporating outcomes assessment in graduate education. Other large research universities such as Pennsylvania State, Ohio State, Indiana, and Minnesota are in the developmental stages of assessment planning focusing significant attention on undergraduate assessment and strategies for assessing general education.


In keeping with this institution's history of giving schools and colleges the maximum possible authority for their respective academic plans, the UW–Madison plan is constructed primarily on the basis of a plan for each college along with an institutional overview. The schools/colleges in turn have required each of their departments to develop assessment plans in order to maximize faculty involvement. Only through departmental involvement and commitment will assessment practices reflect the uniqueness of disciplines and the diversity of educational goals and missions determined by the academic unit.


UW–Madison Assessment Plan


When developing and implementing outcomes assessment strategies, academic units should have at least one of three purposes in mind: to improve, to inform, and/or to prove. The results from an assessment process should provide information which can be used to determine whether or not intended outcomes are being achieved and how the programs can be improved. An assessment process should also be designed to inform departmental faculty and other decision-makers about relevant issues that can impact the project and student learning.

When developing assessment programs that measure student learning to determine programmatic strengths and weaknesses, faculty often ask, "Aren't course grades a satisfactory measure of student performance?" Course grades are one source of information about student achievement. But there are significant short-comings for basing assessment of student learning solely on course grades. A traditional letter grade may suggest how much, and perhaps how well, individual students have learned the prescribed information being tested on that particular exam, but the grades, either singly or in combination, do not necessarily reflect the role of that test in the context of the overall departmental objectives for the major. A different view, such as one or more of the suggested assessment methods, will help to focus on the overall objectives.

Developing a program-specific plan to meet assessment objectives is not an easy process. The following six step approach has enabled many academic units to develop effective plans for assessing student learning in the major.

STEP 1: Define educational/programmatic goals and objectives for the major or program.

A department's instructional goals and objectives serve as the foundation for assessment planning. Program assessment is intended to provide information on how well students are performing relative to the educational goals and objectives established by the department. The defined goals and objectives should be far-reaching and describe a variety of skills and knowledge-based areas. In most instances, not all of the goals and objectives can be adequately assessed for student achievement. However, assessment plans should be devised to assist faculty in determining whether students are acquiring some of the prescribed goals. Clearly, departmental goals for the major must ultimately be integrated with those of the school/college, which in turn, must be aligned with the institutional mission statement.
STEP 2: Identify and describe instruments or methods for assessing student achievement at important stages in the program.

Once educational goals and objectives have been identified, assessment methods for collecting student data can be chosen. These methods should be consistent with the programmatic objectives defined in the first step. Because departments often define a variety of educational goals and objectives, comprehensive assessment strategies frequently require the use of more than one assessment instrument to determine program effectiveness. (See section titled, Assessment Instruments and Methods for Assessing Student Learning in the Major).

STEP 3: Determine how the results will be disseminated and used for program improvement.

Assessment results and information should be used in a timely fashion to facilitate continuous programmatic improvements. Designing a feedback process is essential in all assessment plans because it gives faculty the opportunity to use recent findings to incorporate curricular changes necessary to prepare students with the skills and knowledge to advance in their respective majors. For example, when assessment results are used in a timely manner, faculty may determine that it is necessary to provide curricular changes to enhance programmatic weaknesses. When results indicate that students are performing consistently with established objectives, faculty may focus assessment initiatives in other areas or extend current practices to impact additional students.

STEP 4: Develop a timetable for accomplishing the previous three steps. Each academic unit will need to establish a schedule for selecting, implementing, and using the results of assessment strategies.

In order to meet external demands for assessment implementation and to incorporate assessment into ongoing curricular planning, departments should devise appropriate timetables for development and execution of assessment programs. The timetables should indicate when departments foresee developing each of the previous three assessment planning steps. (For another procedure for accomplishing these four steps, see Appendix b.)

STEP 5: Submit assessment objectives, methods, and timetable to school/college Academic Planning Councils.

Each school/college will determine its specific procedures for approval of departmental plans and subsequent reviews of assessment activities. Some phases of the department's assessment plans should be carried out each academic year regardless of the frequency with which the school/college officially reviews departmental assessment activities. Departments should document all assessment activities and be prepared to demonstrate how information generated from assessment programming has been used for curricular changes by faculty.

STEP 6: Implement assessment plans and revise as needed.

Once approved by the School/College Academic Planning Councils, departments should implement assessment strategies. When initial program feedback from assessment practices becomes available, departments should use the results for programmatic improvement or to revise objectives or plans, if necessary.

By following this six step process, the complexities associated with developing effective and efficient assessment plans, especially for those devising assessment strategies for the first time, can be made less arduous and time consuming.

Currently departments throughout campus are in the process of reviewing and/or determining the most appropriate educational goals and objectives for each major, devising ways to measure whether students are achieving the prescribed objectives, and designing processes to employ gathered assessment data and information into curricular planning. As departments progress in the implementation of their assessment strategies, it will be important to learn from their successes and failures as they attempt to discover useful methods of measuring student achievement. The development of this manual is one effort to assist this cooperative learning effort and the Provost's Office will attempt to keep it electronically up-to-date so that it can best assist this process through shared information among colleagues at this institution and with others throughout the country.

The university has also established a University Assessment Council (UAC) to aid assessment activities. The UAC is comprised of representatives appointed by each school/college Dean, the directors of general education assessment for quantitative reasoning and communication, and representatives of each of the major assessment support services. It is chaired by a member of the Provost's staff. Its primary purpose is to share assessment ideas, particularly but not exclusively the successful efforts, in order to inform and expedite assessment efforts throughout the entire institution.

The Council believes that if properly developed and implemented, assessment of student learning in all majors can be a beneficial tool for facilitating ongoing curricular dialogue and encouraging constant programmatic improvement throughout campus. However, only through widespread faculty and departmental involvement can an institution as complex as ours devise effective and efficient program-based assessment plans that will produce results beneficial for all academic units. With assessment planning located primarily in the departments, faculty exercise their responsibility to devise appropriate methods to measure student academic achievement and program effectiveness. This process gives widespread ownership of assessment planning to faculty and enables them to determine the methods and instruments that are most applicable to their educational objectives and missions. Also, the Council supports the idea that the academic units are best suited to determine how assessment results can be used to ascertain curricular strengths and weaknesses to improve programs.

Developing and Implementing a Departmental Assessment Plan for Programmatic Improvement