The Steps of Program Learning Assessment

The basic steps:

  1. Define the program goals and/or mission.
  2. Establish student learning objectives/outcomes (SLOs).
  3. Determine “learning opportunities” (i.e., where the learning will take place)
  4. Undertake an assessment process: establish a research question/goal; collect and evaluate evidence (direct or indirect evidence of student learning); evaluate, analyze, and interpret evidence.
  5. Based on the results, create and implement an action plan to improve the program and student learning (or a plan to celebrate success).

Steps 1-3 are typically done once and then revisited as needed. Steps 4 and 5 are repeated each time an assessment activity/process takes place.

Please read the detailed information below.


Helpful guides and “big picture” examples

Two helpful guides/workbooks with step-by-step information:

A. Program-Based Review and Assessment: Tools and Techniques for Program Improvement. Office of Academic Planning and Assessment. University of Massachusetts Amherst. (2001)

B. Tools and Techniques for Program Improvement: Handbook for Program Review & Assessment of Student Learning. Office of Institutional Assessment, Research, and Testing. Western Washington University. (2006)

Assessment and Curriculum Support Center workshop slides and handouts (PDF)

A. Three Brief Examples of the Assessment Cycle (2019)

B. Examples of Program-Level Assessment of Student Learning (2008)

C. Creating an Assessment Plan and Using Assessment Templates (2009)

D. Assessment Planning and Using Assessment Templates (2009)

E. Best Practices for Planning Program-Level Assessment of Student Learning (2013)

F. Assessment Planning for Busy People (2015)


Create a Department/Program Assessment Plan

A written assessment plan that can be distributed within or outside the department/program is useful. Below are elements of a good plan, guiding questions, and tips/notes.


Elements of a Program Assessment Plan Guiding Questions Tips & Notes
Program Mission Statement and/or Goals
  • In broad terms, what will students in the major know, value, and be able to do upon graduation?
  • Where will the mission statement and goals be published? How will students learn of them?
  • The initial development of the mission statement and learning objectives/outcomes may take your program one full year. But once established, these statements will not frequently change.
  • 2-6 goals are adequate.
Program Learning Objectives/Outcomes (intended outcomes)


Also known as “SLOs”

  • Given the program goals, what should students be able to demonstrate, represent, or produce?
  • In what ways can your program help students meet institutional and General Education outcomes?
  • Where will the program learning objectives/outcomes be published? How will students learn of them?
  • Once established, the program student learning objectives/outcomes (SLOs) will not frequently change.
  • Rely on verbs to describe what the students should be able to do, not what the faculty members will “cover.”
  • 3-8 specific, observable or measurable SLOs are sufficient.
  • Because consensus among faculty is needed, SLOs can take up to a year to develop.
  • Make it public: advertise SLOs; remind students in courses; include SLOs on syllabi; regularly discuss at faculty meetings.
  • See also “How to Develop Outcomes

Workshop Presentation Slides and Handouts (PDFs)

Learning Opportunities
  • What activities, projects, courses, etc., will the students be exposed to that will help them achieve the learning objectives/outcomes (SLOs)?
  • When do students have opportunities to practice or reinforce what they’ve learned?
  • Where in the curriculum (or external activity) do students have the opportunity to showcase their achievement?

Workshop Presentation Slides and Handouts (PDFs)

Long-range Timeline and Lead People for Each Assessment Activity
  • Which SLO will be tackled first? second? and so forth.
  • When will each SLO be assessed?
  • Which 2-4 faculty members are best equipped to take the lead role in the assessment of each SLO? (Or, which faculty members are most interested in each outcome and could take the lead?)
  • A good strategy is to first assess SLOs for which the department already has data available (e.g., choose to assess students’ writing skill first because students already write reports in a required course and a rubric to evaluate already exists).
  • A program can assess one outcome per year (but plan to have all outcomes assessed during one program-review cycle of 7 years).
  • Programs with capstone experiences can simultaneously assess multiple outcomes using students’ final capstone project.
  • Divide the workload: have different teams (2-4 faculty members) responsible for taking the lead in each assessment activity.


Plan an Assessment Activity/Project

After the program creates its master assessment plan (including the elements above), the program starts evaluating how well students are meeting the desired SLOs. Some programs choose to evaluate one outcome per year; other programs tackle multiple outcomes at the same time. Use the following information to design a meaningful, valuable assessment activity/project.


Item Guiding Questions Tips/notes
1. Assessment research questions (or goals for assessment activities)
  • For each outcome, what do faculty members want to know?
  • What information would be useful for faculty members when they discuss ways to improve student learning and program effectiveness?
  • What purpose might an assessment activity serve? (e.g., finalize a rubric; gain information about student competency; help make decisions about pre-requisites)
  • What are the criteria for success? What results are needed to indicate that the program is a success?
  • How will the results be distributed and discussed?
  • Ask meaningful questions.
  • Discuss how the assessment results will be used before starting the assessment project.

Below are examples of assessment research questions:

  • How well are our students achieving our program SLOs? What percent of graduating seniors meet our performance standards?
  • How well are our students achieving outcomes 1 and 2? What percent of our students met our minimum performance standard?
  • Which course syllabi address our program SLOs? Which class assignments directly relate to the SLOs?
  • Do students perceive the curriculum as helping them meet the program SLOs?
  • How can we use the results from a previous assessment project?
  • Are students prepared when they enter our 300-level courses? What are skills do entering students already have?
  • What types of jobs do our majors expect to get after they graduate?
  • Should we revise our program SLOs?
  • Are our courses aligned with program SLOs? Do students have sufficient opportunities to practice lab techniques so they are more likely to meet our expectations?
  • What rubric will work to evaluate student projects for SLOs 1-3?
  • What examples of student work can serve as “anchors” or “benchmarks” for high, average, and unacceptable quality?
2. Assessment methods and timelines
  • How will you know that students are meeting the intended outcomes?
  • From whom, and at what points, will you gather data/evidence?
  • How will you collect data/evidence? (e.g., evaluation of student work, national exam, survey, focus group, interview)
  • How will you evaluate the collected data/evidence?
  • What is the overall timeline for the assessment project?
  • Who will be responsible for each aspect of the assessment?
See also “Choose a Method to Collect Data/Evidence.”
3. Results
  • What did you find out?
  • What are the answer(s) to the assessment question?
  • How do the data or evidence support those findings?
  • Did you meet the pre-established criteria for success?
4. Decisions, plans, and recommendations
  • Based on the findings, what do you plan to do now (or, what was done)?
  • How can you use the findings to stimulate discussion about program improvements that are designed to enhance student learning (or, what discussions took place)?
  • What recommendations will be (or, were) made?
  • Create an action plan based on the interpretation and discussion of the the results.
  • Assign a faculty team to take the lead in carrying out the plan.
  • Celebrate successes!


Characteristics of Good Assessment Planning
  • Focuses on the program (e.g., the major) rather than individual courses
  • Has 2-6 goals and 3-8 student learning outcomes
  • Anticipates how the results will be used for improvement and decision making
  • Collaboratively created with input and discussion by the entire department
  • Is systematic
  • Is manageable
  • Over time, multiple data-collection methods are used
  • Is conveyed to students and the students understand their role in assessment
  • Leads to improvement
  • Has a foundation in Mānoa’s mission and goals and undergraduate learning objectives (if applicable).
  • Includes an evaluation of the assessment
  • Describes the goals(s) of each planned assessment project


Develop a Comprehensive Assessment Plan

We recommend starting with a small assessment project. Your program can have a comprehensive assessment plan that is slowly implemented. Here are some techniques to design a comprehensive plan:

  • Create a multi-year plan in which 1 or 2 SLOs are assessed each year.
  • Use evidence from a capstone experience to simultaneously evaluate multiple SLOs.
  • Plan a direct and an indirect data collection method for each outcome. Examples:
    • An exit survey given every other year asks students to self-report on all outcomes while direct evidence of student learning is evaluated for each outcome on an annual rotation (one outcome per year).
    • Student projects in a capstone course are designed to provide evidence for several outcomes. In addition, indirect evidence in the form of an alumni survey and job placement figures are used to triangulate the conclusions reached through analysis of the capstone course results.
  • Use a pre-test/post-test design to gather evidence on possible growth (“value-added”) from freshman to senior year.


Last reviewed/updated: 09/13/2022

Thank you to the “Program-based Review and Assessment,” Academic Planning & Assessment, Univ. of Massachusetts Amherst and the San Diego State University Committee on Assessment for information that helped guide this page.