Curriculum development and student learning assessment are core elements of an academic program, integrating the disciplinary and pedagogical expertise of the faculty to create pathways for student learning and achievement. The work of curriculum design and student learning assessment is ideally suited to help departments, academic degree programs, general education programs, and other types of academic programs, develop goals for student learning; measurable outcomes for those goals; learning sequences to achieve those goals; and student-generated artifacts that can be evaluated to determine if the desired learning occurred. Questions such as those listed below can be answered:
- What do we expect that all students should know or be able to do when they graduate?
- Do our learning outcomes reflect our goals for student learning in our program?
- Is our curriculum aligned with our student learning outcomes?
- Is our curriculum meeting the needs of our students?
- Are students learning what we think they are learning?
- Is a course, or sequence, providing the learning opportunities needed for future courses in the program?
- Is a course doing what we think it is doing in regard to program-level student learning?
- How can we make learning assessment efforts lead to documented learning improvement?
When approached in a learner-centered perspective, curriculum development and student learning assessment help an academic program tell its story and share how students will grow, develop expertise, and be different because they studied in that program. This approach helps programs apply a scholarly, research-oriented mindset to their curriculum and assessment efforts, articulating the intent for student learning, checking to see if that learning is achieved, and then using expertise, creativity, and evidence-based practices to make changes to help students reach the goals set for them. The CAT believes that the work of curriculum development and student learning assessment can be powerful and transformational experiences for academic programs and the faculty within those programs.
“Assessment can sometimes feel like a lot of busy-work, but your approach makes it feel purposeful and aspirational. Because of that, I am actually looking forward to working with you, [and colleagues] to develop these tools in [our program]–not just to provide data for the university, but to help us improve and feel better about what we are doing with and for our students.”Wake Forest University Chair
“Our department is turning into something quite different than it was before. [We are] More cohesive and more focused on teaching. Your work is really transformational.”Wake Forest University Chair
Phases of Curriculum Development and Student Learning Assessment
Identifying high-priority learning goals for all students is the first step in designing curriculum and assessment processes. This is the first step in a process called Backward Design — an intentional approach that focuses on the end, not the means. When goals have been articulated, then Backward Design enables the creation of an aligned, coherent, scaffolded educational experience that ensures every student has the opportunity to achieve the goals. More information about Backward Design can be found here. Using participatory design principles, we help programs collaboratively and iteratively identify their shared goals for student learning and translate them into measurable learning outcome statements that articulate the expected learning. Key aspects of this phase include:
Program Mission: the program mission is a statement of the purpose of the academic program in terms of teaching and learning. Note that this mission statement is limited to student learning in the program and does not encompass the research or service goals. Academic program refers to the specific degree-granting program. An academic department which offers two different degrees would have two different academic programs.
Program Goals: the goals are statements of what the academic program aims to achieve in terms of student learning, from the perspective of the program and faculty within the program. Collectively, the mission and goals should align with the mission and goals of the College and University; focus on student learning; and be contextualized to focus on student success.
Student Learning Outcomes: the student learning outcomes (SLOs) are statements, from the perspective of the student, of what can be done as a result of completing the academic program. SLOs express the knowledge, skills, and attitudes that are expected of all students that complete the program. They align to the program mission and goals; focus on student learning; are measurable; and are specified and operationalized with appropriate detail.
Once expectations for learning have been articulated as measurable student learning outcomes, then the next step is to create aligned, coherent, progressive learning experiences that give students the opportunity to achieve and demonstrate that desired learning. We help programs map their curriculum to align courses with program outcomes, create scaffolded learning pathways toward the outcomes, and develop measures to assess achievement of the expected learning. Key aspects of this phase include:
Curriculum Map: a curriculum map is a table showing the intentional relationship between the student learning outcomes and the courses in the program. The map indicates which courses are providing significant learning experiences for each outcome and it may also include the level of the learning experience and if the course is a designated location for the collection of learning assessment data.
Assessment Measures: the tool or method used to assess evidence of student learning. Direct measures include exams and products of student work that can be scored by a rubric such as portfolios, written work, performances, and presentations. Indirect measures include focus groups, surveys, and self-assessments as well as retention, graduation, and acceptance rates and scores on tests such as the GRE. Grades are not an appropriate measure of SLO achievement since they are derived from more than work on one specific learning outcome.
Standards and Thresholds: standards represent the criteria for student work to be considered acceptable for achievement of an outcome. Thresholds refer to a targeted percentage of student work that meets the achievement expectations.
When the role each course plays in the curriculum and the tools for assessment are known, we help instructors design assignments and assessments that will allow students to demonstrate their learning and achievement of the learning outcomes. Careful design of assignments and assessment that produce evidence of learning aligned to the learning outcomes and assessment measures makes program-level assessment meaningful and actionable. We work with programs and institutional partners to help build sustainable data collection and management processes. Key aspects of this phase include:
Course Design: courses that are either required or electives within a required cluster of courses are specific pieces of the puzzle that is an academic program’s curriculum. These courses should be designed to both fulfill their responsibilities to the overall learning goals for the program as well as reflect topic-specific content and the pedagogical creativity and expertise of the instructor.
Assignment Design: includes the essential work that faculty do as teachers to bring out the best in their students and enables robust conversations about teaching and the shared curriculum in a program. As Sullivan and McConnell said, “Assignments may be the game changer for student learning and for inclusive excellence in undergraduate education today.” (Change, Sept/Oct. 2018). Aligned, transparent, authentic assignments motivate students while producing valuable evidence of learning.
Data Collection and Storage: programs should develop and share a plan for the collection and storage of learning assessment data that is consistent from year to year, transparent, and accessible to all faculty in the program. This plan should include procedures for collecting evidence of student learning — including when and under what conditions the evidence was collected, any factors that might influence student motivation associated with the assessment and the sampling stragegy if appropriate; and a description of how the data will be stored and managed for present and future access and use. It is recommended that data and associated artifacts of learning be retained for the duration of an accreditation cycle.
Using results from assessment of student learning, the CAT can help programs develop and implement targeted changes in courses, assignments, and teaching strategies in order to achieve evidence-based improvement. Key aspects of this phase include:
Data Visualization and Analysis: begins with developing a process to score evidence of learning, including when and by whom, the sample size, and response rates when appropriate, and also includes decisions about organizing and formating the data in ways that are meaningful and comparable. Programs may consider many options including comparing means on a single measure from year to year, aggregate mutliple sources of evidence for an outcome at the population level, or may chose to track growth longitudinally on a per student basis.
Interpretation of Findings: interpretation should weave together all the findings to tell the story of student learning in the program. Interpretation should also include contextualization of the findings based upon previous years data, any changes made to the student learning experience, and any other relevant factors. A coherent, evidence-based story may help programs direct future efforts; tell their story to attract students, recruit colleagues; and demonstrate value and needs to administration. Interpretation that intentionally connects to specific knowledge areas, skills, or products can enable greater targeting of learning improvement efforts.
Development and Implementation of Improvement Plans: improvement is not the same thing as assessment or change. Improvement is achieved when data connected to changes made is found to meet or exceed a desired goal. Based upon a program’s analysis and interpretaton of assessment findings, the CAT can then support program efforts to develop improvement plans based upon evidence-based practices and program-specific considerations.