Measuring student learning

Assessment methods should help the instructor answer the questions, “How do I know the required learning has taken place? What might I need to modify about the course to best support student learning?”  

Information about student learning can be assessed through both direct and indirect measures. Direct measures may include homework, quizzes, exams, reports, essays, research projects, case study analysis, and rubrics for oral and other performances. Examples of indirect measures include course evaluations, student surveys, course enrollment information, retention in the major, alumni surveys, and graduate school placement rates. 

Approaches to measuring student learning 

Methods of measuring student learning are often characterized as summative or formative assessments: 

  • Summative assessments - tests, quizzes, and other graded course activities that are used to measure student performance. They are cumulative and often reveal what students have learned at the end of a unit or the end of a course. Within a course, summative assessment includes the system for calculating individual student grades. 
  • Formative assessment  - any means by which students receive input and guiding feedback on their relative performance to help them improve. It can be provided face-to-face in office hours, in written comments on assignments, through rubrics, and through emails. 

Formative assessments can be used to measure student learning on a daily, ongoing basis. These assessments reveal how and what students are learning during the course and often inform next steps in teaching and learning. Rather than asking students if they understand or have any questions, you can be more systematic and intentional by asking students at the end of the class period to write the most important points or the most confusing aspect of the lecture on index cards. Collecting and reviewing the responses provides insight into what themes students have retained and what your next teaching steps might be. Providing feedback on these themes to students gives them insight into their own learning. 

You can also ask students to reflect and report on their own learning. Asking students to rate their knowledge about a topic after taking your course as compared to what they believe they knew before taking your course is an example.  

Considerations for Measuring Student Learning

As you develop methods for assessing your students consider:

  • including indirect and direct assessments as well as formative and summative assessments
  • evaluating whether or not the assessment aligns directly with a learning outcome
  • ensuring the measurement is sustainable and reasonable in terms of time and resources, both for the students and the instructors (e.g., grading, response time, and methods). To estimate the time that students need to complete different assignments, see the Rice University workload calculator
  • using a mid-semester student survey, such as the CTI's Mid-Semester Feedback Program, a great way to gather feedback on what students are learning and what is helping them learn
  • using the results of the assessments to improve the course. Examples 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 learning technologies

Getting started with measuring student learning

At the course level, it is helpful to review course assignments and assessments by asking: 

  • What are the students supposed to get out of each assessment? 
  • How are the assessments aligned with learning outcomes
  • What is its intrinsic value in terms of: 
    • Knowledge acquired? 
    • Skill development? 
    • Values clarification? 
    • Performance attainment? 
  • How are homework and problem sets related to exams? 
  • How are the exams related to each other? 
  • What other forms of assessment (besides exams) 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?