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Cornell University

Course-Level Assessment Guide

Learning Outcomes

What do I intend my students to learn from the course?

Instructional Methods and Learning Experiences

What will I use with my students to help them learn what I intend from the course?

Assessment Methods

How will I know what my students have learned from the course?

“Closing the Loop”

What have I learned from this process that can improve the course?


Course-Level Learning Outcomes

What do I intend my students learn from the course?

On the course level, the primary focus of this phase of assessment is to articulate what you intend that your students learn. Various terms are used to describe the focus here: goals, objectives, learning outcomes. Although these terms have been used interchangeably it might be more productive to distinguish them from one another. One way to think of this is in terms of continuum of specificity:

Goals » Objectives » Learning Outcomes

Goals are more general statements of intensions, like “Students will understand the fundamental concepts of fluid dynamics.” and may be what are included on the course syllabus.

Objectives are statements of what will be achieved and begin to be more specific in relationship to goals: “At the end of the course, students will be able to evaluate old hypotheses in light of new data.”

The term learning outcome is used to indicate the knowledge, skills or values that result from instruction and the experiences the students undergo as a result of taking the course.  They serve to guide assessment measures chosen by the instructor: “Students will be able to demonstrate proficiency in a variety of dance styles, including ballet, modern dance, jazz and tap.”

In summary, objectives could be thought of as intended results of instruction, whereas outcomes are the actual achieved results of instruction as determined by assessment methods. For the purposes of this document, when discussing what students will achieve in the course or program, we will use the term “outcome”.


In writing these statements you are answering the question, “As a result of taking my course, what do I want my students to be able to do, say, think or feel that they were unable to before their experience in the course?

Remembering that these statements will guide how you assess your students’ learning, it is helpful to think in terms of forms of evidence of that learning and how the verbs you use can frame that evidence. Verbs like “learn” and “understand” are more general and don’t indicate the form of evidence sought to determine the level of student learning compared to verbs like “list”, “describe”, “explain”, “apply” that suggest more clearly a means of assessment.

The following web sites have more complete information based on educational psychologist Benjamin Bloom’s taxonomy of educational objectives (1956) with verbs representing a hierarchy of learning levels from basic knowledge to the highest level of creativity, as well as extending beyond cognitive learning to affective and psychomotor learning:
Assessment of Student Learning: Introduction to Bloom's Taxonomy, University of West Florida
Bloom's Taxonomy - Action Verbs pdf

See more resources on articulating Learning Outcomes

Once you have written the course learning outcomes, it is recommended they be included in your course syllabus.

Course-Level Instructional Methods and Learning Experiences

What will I use with my students to help them learn what I intend from the course?

At the level of course planning it is recommended that instructional methods like texts used, course readings, use of class time, lecture topics, use of discussions or laboratory sessions and field trips be chosen after the course learning outcomes have been clearly articulated. The choice of instructional methods, including technology, is a huge investment of time and resources. Choices here will prescribe assessment methods used to keep track of students’ learning. The relevant principle here is that of alignment: are instructional and assessment methods in alignment with the clarified learning outcomes the course is based upon? If an outcome of a laboratory-based course is that “the student demonstrate the ability to understand cause and effect relationships; define problems; use symbolic thought; apply scientific principles; solve problems with no single correct answer” and during the semester students carry out pre-packaged experiments without designing an experiment of their own, there is no alignment between outcome and instructional method. If a course outcome is that “the student produce a choreographic work suitable for public performance” and the instructor only gave a paper and pencil test, there is no alignment between outcome and assessment method.

See more resources on learning activities & Engaging Students

Course-Level Assessment Methods

How will I know what my students have learned from the course?

Assessment methods should help the instructor answer the question, “How do I know the required learning has taken place? Information gathered in this step is critical in course development and can be in two forms: direct measures of student learning and indirect measures. Direct measures provide observable evidence of the students’ level of learning. On the course-level this may include homework, quizzes, prelims and exams, reports and term papers, research projects, case study analysis, rubrics for oral and other performances. Indirect measures do not directly measure student learning but are intended to provide additional necessary information to determine the relative quality of the learning experience. Examples of indirect measures include course evaluations, student surveys, exit interviews, course enrollment information, focus groups, alumni surveys, graduate school placement rates.

Example Direct/Indirect Measure Summary Table pdf

At the course level, start by looking at what is included in your syllabus. It is helpful here to review course assignments and assessments by asking:

  • What are the students supposed to get out of each assessment?
  • What is its intrinsic value in terms of:

    Knowledge acquired?
    Skill development?
    Values clarification?
    Performance attainment?

  • How are homework and problem sets related to prelims and exams?
  • How are the exams related to each other?
  • What other forms of assessment (besides tests) can be used as indicators of student learning?
  • If writing assignments are used, are there enough of them for students to develop the requisite skills embedded in them?
  • How is feedback on student work provided to help students improve?
  • Are the assessments structured in a way to help students assess their own work and progress?
  • Does the assignment provide evidence of an outcome that was communicated? Is the evidence direct or indirect?

See more ideas on how to assess student learning

Course-Level "Closing the Loop"

What have I learned from this process that can improve the course?

Closing the loop is the justification and reward for all the investment of thought and time expended in the overall assessment process: how can the course be improved by what has been found through the analysis? As one faculty member has said, “Assessment helps us figure out whether our students are learning what we think they’re learning.” A very important factor in this final phase of assessment is that of sustainability:

  • Has the process produced the kind of data necessary for critical decisions to be made?
  • Has the instructor developed a process that is useful and beneficial to all involved—the instructor as well as students?
  • Can and will the process be practically replicated as time and circumstance require?

At the course level, it is most practical to think of the assessment process as a means to an end (informing pedagogical practice) and not an end in itself (to satisfy others’ expectations). Examples of results possible at this stage include revising course content in terms of depth vs. breadth, realignment between goals and teaching methods, employment of more appropriate assessment methods, or effective incorporation of technologies.

See more resources on re-designing your course.


Walvoord, B. E. (2010). Assessment clear and simple:  A practical guide for institutions, departments, and general education (2nd ed.).  San Francisco, CA:  Jossey-Bass.

Suskie, L. (2009). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
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