Frequently Asked Questions

Assessment Reporting

What is expected of us?

Each year your department must assess one departmental learning outcome and document the results of the process on the online form.

Why must we document our assessment?

Building an assessment-focused community will enhance teaching and learning at Grinnell College. The annual assessment documentation process makes it possible for every area on campus to share the work it has done, to seek assistance, to prepare for 10-year reviews, and to provide evidence that can help you make important decisions for your area. It will also help us meet expectations from the Higher Learning Commission.

How many learning outcomes must I assess each year?

You need to report on at least one learning outcome that you examined in the past year. Within each 10-year period, your area should assess each of your student learning outcomes at least once.

What if the framework doesn’t work for my area?

We have developed the framework based on the assessment process, and we tested the framework with several disciplines across campus. If you feel that this framework does not work for your area, we will work with you to come up with a solution that meets everyone’s needs. Your feedback will help us to improve the process for the future.

Will reporting our assessments make us vulnerable?

The Dean’s office will use the data to demonstrate to HLC that Grinnell College is performing our mission. The Dean’s office will not use this information to penalize any individual or campus area with financial or personnel decisions. We hope to foster an assessment documentation process that encourages self-reflection and collaboration across campus.

Learning Outcomes

For details about writing learning outcomes see the Learning Outcomes Guide.

What if I won’t teach or assess the things I hope students will learn?

Student learning outcomes assessment is a process for us to identify what students should be able to do by the end of an educational unit and to determine the degree to which students meet these goals [1]. This means we must intentionally teach the desired knowledge, skills, and attitudes and we must systematically gather evidence about student performance. We do this to help us improve the teaching and learning process.

Sometimes we hope students will learn something from our instruction, but 1) we won’t specifically teach that skill, knowledge, or attitude or 2) we don’t plan to assess the learning in that area or 3) we expect unique learning for different individuals. In these cases, we can’t really be certain the desired learning will occur for all successful students.

So what do I do? If you hope some learning will occur, but you teach or assess it, call it a “goal” instead of a “learning outcome”. Just design the course to accomplish your goals without explicitly stating the learning you will not be measuring. Students will learn a lot in your course and not all must appear as learning outcomes. Focus on the handful of most important outcomes for all your students.

Example 1: Instead of writing “our students will go to graduate school” (Goal), write “students will be able to conduct a professional-quality research project” (learning outcome). Rationale: We have no control over what students choose after leaving Grinnell. We can’t force students to go to graduate school, but we can influence the students’ choice and help them prepare by creating positive research experiences for them.

Example 2: If the instructor will use group learning, but neither teaches interaction skills nor assesses students’ interpersonal behaviors, then avoid writing a learning outcome that says “students will work well with others”. Rationale: Designing a learning experience to involve group work may increase students’ ability to interact effectively with others, but it is not a guarantee. To be able to turn the goal into a learning outcome, the instructor would need to articulate the behaviors the students would exhibit when they’re “working well with others” and gather evidence that those behaviors are happening at the desired level.

Does my learning outcome need to be measurable?

Yes. You will be expected to provide “direct” evidence that the learners are achieving each learning outcome you choose. A learning outcome is the knowledge, skill, or attitude that learners can demonstrate as a result of your instruction.

Why measurable learning outcomes?

A “measurable learning outcome” is written to describe an observable behavior exhibited by the learner which provides evidence that the student learned. Measurable learning outcomes are advantageous for several reasons. First, measurable learning outcomes set clear expectations for students and colleagues because they state the behavior a learner will be able to exhibit upon completing the educational activity. Second, they increase the likelihood students learn what you intended them to learn because you can explicitly align the desired goal state (learning outcome) with the instructional intervention (teaching methods and materials) and the assessments (evidence of learning). Third, measurable learning outcomes can be easier to assess.

What if my area does not have numerical data about learning?

No problem. There are many forms of evidence about learning outcomes ranging from test scores to essays to oral presentations to musical performances. Choose the kinds of evidence that most appropriately demonstrate the kinds of knowledge, skills, or attitudes you expect from the students.

The good news is that you’re probably already assessing some learning outcomes as you grade student work. Consider the criteria you use to differentiate between excellent, average, and unacceptable student work. This process is assessment, even if the learning outcomes and assessment criteria are not explicitly stated. The key is finding a way to articulate the desired student performance and the quality criteria in the language of learning outcomes and assessment. The resources on campus can help you to identify the learning outcomes and assessments that are meaningful to you.

What is the difference between course outcomes, area outcomes, and college outcomes?

Course learning outcomes (CLO) describe what the students in a class should be able to do by the time the course ends. Departmental learning outcomes (DLO) describe what the students should be able to do when they’ve completed area requirements. College-wide learning outcomes (CWLO) describe what the students should be able to do by the time they graduate from Grinnell College.

We would expect CLO to contribute to achieving DLO, and the DLO would contribute to achieving the CWLO. As we move from the CLO to CWLO, we would also expect the learning outcomes to be written in broader language and reference higher-level skills and knowledge. The most specific learning outcomes are likely those for a course, workshop, or lesson. Combine the course learning outcomes to accomplish the learning outcomes for the broader program, department, concentration, major, etc.


  • CLO: Students will identify the components of a scientific argument in a research paper.
  • DLO: Students will write effectively in the common formats used by professionals in our field, including research papers, whitepapers, abstracts, and policy documents.
  • CWLO #3: Students develop the ability to communicate clearly and persuasively in various modes for various purposes and audiences.


How does assessment relate to learning?

We exist as an educational institution to help students learn. We do this by creating educational experiences which allow students to learn the information, skills and attitudes we believe are important. Students may learn in both formal (e.g., classroom) and informal (e.g., residence halls) spaces. We assess because we want to know if what we are doing is working and what we can do to improve. We have the question, “Did students learn? Why or why not?”

Because learning is invisible—hidden within the students’ minds, we know if students learned by having them exhibit observable behaviors we think reasonably represents their learning. This evidence is the basis of assessment. For maximum effectiveness, we seek evidence that gives us the most useful information about learning so we can make decisions about our teaching approaches.

Assessment is a fundamental part of teaching and learning. We assess every day when we compare our actual outcome against the outcome we had hoped to accomplish. Discrepancies give us opportunities to change. Formal assessments include classroom exams, a recital, and a competitive sporting events. Informal assessments include seeing students’ puzzled faces during lecture, recognizing off-key notes during practice, and noticing the kinds of questions students ask during office hours.

Can I use grades as evidence?

No, grades are usually poor evidence. Grades are not specific enough to indicate how well a student met the learning outcome. Often, many factors other than learning contribute to a grade, including class participation points, late work penalties, extra credit, etc.

Example: An instructor has a learning outcome that students will be able to write a concise and effective persuasive essay. This instructor’s grading policy includes deducting points for not attending class and for late work. What happens if a student who writes the best essays in class also misses several class periods and turns in the assignments late? This student’s course grade may not reflect the student’s ability to write, which is the stated learning outcome. Instead, the grade is reflecting student behaviors unrelated to ability to write.

Curriculum Mapping

For more information see the Curriculum Mapping Guide.

What is curriculum mapping?

Mapping learning outcomes involves clearly connecting the how the more specific classroom learning outcomes contribute to accomplishing broader program or institutional learning outcomes. These connections allow us to use course-level information to determine a) how well students are accomplishing the departmental and institutional outcomes, b) whether there is unnecessary overlap in coursework, and c) whether we have gaps in our curriculum. This information helps the areas on campus to effectively utilize their resources and to demonstrate need for more resources in critical areas.

[1] From the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education’s foundational statement answering “what is assessment in higher education?