It is simple enough; courses are offered so that students can learn. The success of any course is measured by how well students have learned what skills and knowledge have been selected as the important goals of the course. Assessment is the opportunity to discover whether students are learning what we think they should and where they are not learning make changes in either the content or teaching method in the course so they can more successfully meet the learning outcomes of the course.
Tests. Tests are still effective ways to determine whether students have mastered the course content. Tests are a feedback system that let students know their own strength and weakness in the course; tests, of course, serve as an incentive for students to work at mastering the expected information or skills. Tests can also be an effective instrument for assessing the course. It is important to have specific questions tied to the key outcomes identified in the course syllabus. Most faculty have some key areas that they believe almost all students should have mastered and other areas of competency which while important may serve to discriminate between the best students and others. Analysis of student performance on the key areas of expected outcomes can provide useful information about whether or not students are mastering those key areas. Students in an Introduction to Linguistics course could all earn better than 80% on a final and yet most students could still have difficulty analyzing the grammar of a sentence. Despite the overall key score, the section in the course on grammar might need to be strengthened.
Where there are multiple sections of the course, it can be useful to embed some common questions in exams for all sections, even if the rest of the exams might be different. An analysis of how students did on those embedded question would provide a measure of how effective the multiple sections would be in achieving the core objectives for the area. For example, if the same question about the affect of raising the prime rate on the rate of economic growth were asked in all Macro Economics courses, it would provide a consistent measure of how well students in economic courses understood this key concept.
Portfolio Assessment. Portfolios, discussed under capstone assessment, can also be useful for assessing courses where students need to produce a body of work. Portfolios of student work can be collected and all or a random sample can then be assessed based on an established rubric. They can be evaluated either by the faculty member or by someone else, such as another faculty member. For example, in a photography course, students might need to produce several photographs demonstrating a number of techniques. Evaluation of portfolios might show that too high a percentage of portfolios showed difficulty in adjusting the aperture appropriately for extremely bright lighting conditions.
Where there are multiple sections of the course, portfolio assessment can be very useful. For example, where there are multiple sections of writing, random samples can be collected from each section and these can then be rated based on an established rubric. Obviously multiple raters would be needed. This process would make certain that all sections are achieving the same outcomes expected of the course. Evaluate how well those outcomes are being achieved, and identify whether there are weakness across all the course or in any particular course. Further, the very process of portfolio assessment can be a great learning experiences for participants who can see different ways of achieving the same outcomes, match their expectations with those of their colleagues, and identify their own strengths and weaknesses in achieving specified outcomes in comparison to the norm.
Pre and Post Project Assessment. Students come to us with differing levels of preparation. In some cases pre and post assessment instruments can be a part of the course and used for assessment. In a speech class, the video tape of the first oral presentation by students can be compared with the final oral presentation by students. Using the same rubric, the early and final speeches can be assessed to provide a measure of the gains by students in the areas targeted by the course.
Where there are multiple sections of a course, the same pre and post performances can be included across the sections and then randomly sampled results can be evaluated based on one rubric. This would provide a good measure of where across the course section there or are not the expected gains in student performance.
Final Projects or Papers. Final projects or final papers can be designed so that they synthesize the expectations of the course. It is important for assessment purposes that the project or paper represents the course objectives and course learning in a conscious way. A course on preparing lesson plans for secondary education would not be well assessed by a research paper on some problem in the secondary education curriculum. Though the project may be valuable, it provides no measure of the core learning in the course. Clearly the best assessment for the course would be for students to prepare a sequence of lesson plans in their area, perhaps with either a written or oral explanation of the rationale for the plans. Such plans could then be assessed by a rubric.
In traditional liberal arts colleges, end of term papers are often used to assess students. However, such papers may not demonstrate much about how well students met the outcomes expected of the course. If a history course wanted students to be able to explain the key factors leading to the American Revolution, a research paper on the strategic problems at the Battle of Bunker Hill, while demonstrating the ability of the student to do secondary research on an historical issue, would do little to assess the ability of students to explain the multiple causes of the American Revolution. However, if one of the goals of a course in American Movies was to have students be able to apply the concepts and language of film criticism to interpret and evaluate movies, then a paper which asked students to write an evaluation of a movie not covered in class would be a ready vehicle to assess whether students learned the necessary skills and language.
Surveys. Effectively targeted surveys which ask about specific features of a course or teaching method can often be a useful way to determine student perceptions of a course. While such surveys do not assess actual student learning, they can be a vehicle for determining student perceptions about their learning. In anonymous surveys students can sometimes be frighteningly candid, admitting to not doing the assigned reading or to finding a particular assignment too easy. Surveys can also often be the only way to measure affective goals of a course, such as increasing a student's likelihood of attending a play in the future.