Aligning Student Learning and Assessment at All Levels in the University
Topic 1: Some General Principles on “Alignment”
Assessment can be carried out at all levels of the university: individual courses, departmental programs (e.g. majors), and university-wide (e.g. general education). In the best case, common or related student learning outcomes directly link assessment processes at different levels. When this occurs we say that student-learning outcomes are aligned. Aligning learning outcomes across the university (and across disciplines) leads to shared university-wide expectations about student learning and provides multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate—and faculty to assess—these outcomes. As Linda Suskie (2009) notes, it is important to integrate common student learning outcomes across all levels of the university “so that students can benefit from integrated, collaborative learning experiences.” (p. 125)
In pragmatic terms, alignment means that student-learning outcomes at the course and department level are consistent with (and flow from) university-level outcomes. For example, university-level student learning outcomes, like those typically associated with general education programs, should inform expected student learning outcomes at all levels throughout the university, although they may take slightly different forms, depending on the institutional level (course or program, e.g.) and discipline. As a rule, departments as well as schools and colleges need to pay attention to university-level student learning outcomes when setting their own, as these outcomes should be introduced and assessed in freshman- and sophomore-level introductory courses, which often satisfy general ed requirements, and reinforced throughout students’ curricula.
When aligned in this way, a single, broad institutional student learning outcome (like critical thinking or analytical reasoning) can be assessed at multiple points in a typical student’s undergraduate curriculum to determine progress toward meeting it. Such alignment does not keep departments from developing additional student learning outcomes relevant to their particular majors, but it does mean that they should reinforce (and assess) university-level student learning outcomes in majors-related courses, outcomes that may have been initially introduced in general education courses outside the department.
A diagram illustrating the alignment of student learning goals across all levels of the university is provided below.