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Course Level Assessment

Assessment in the classroom is familiar to most educators as a tool for providing feedback to students on their mastery of key concepts and skills. Assessment is also a tool for getting feedback on the course itself and for understanding how well the course functions to support learning.

Course-level assessment pools information about student outcomes (a distribution of scores, for example) and explores comparisons at different points in time (start/ end of term, for example) or across different groups of learners (majors/ non-majors or upper/ lower division students, for example). With this information, instructors can better understand the classroom as a learning environment and can adapt their methods, materials, and course experiences to improve teaching and learning.

With appropriate disaggregation, assessment findings become a lever for advancing equity, revealing how well our structures support students of distinct racial, economic, social, and educational backgrounds.

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Learning Outcomes

Outcomes: linking course and curriculum

Course learning outcomes, or objectives, are the fundamental learning goals of a class. They describe what students will know, value, and be able to do after completing a course. These outcomes are explicitly referenced in the syllabus, making them clear to students. The outcomes also serve as the main organizing principle for the instructor in preparing the course.

Faculty exercise discretion in designing their courses, and it can be helpful to ‘map’ the connections between course learning outcomes and program-level outcomes. Typically the course outcomes are nested within program level outcomes, which may in turn be nested within broad ‘core competencies’.

Table 1 Sample nested outcome structure

Nested outcomes structure


Example Mapping


1. Core Competency

1.1 Program level outcome

1.1.1 Course objective

1.1.2 Course objective

1.1.3 Course objective

1.1.4 Course objective

2. Core Competency

2.1 Program level outcome

2.1.1 Course objective

1. Research Ability*

1.1 Develop historical methods.**

1.1.1 Recognize history as an interpretive account of the human past…
1.1.2 Collect, sift, organize, question, synthesize, and interpret complex material.
1.1.3 Practice ethical historical inquiry…
1.1.4 Develop empathy toward people in the context of their distinctive historical moments.

2. Written Communication

2.1 Create historical arguments and narratives

2.1.1 Generate substantive, open-ended questions...

  *See UCSD Competency Framework.
**See 2016 AHA History Discipline Core.

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Methods for course-based assessment

Performance-based assessment

Many instructors use performance-based assessments (a final project or portfolio) toward the completion of a class/unit/lesson to determine how well students integrate and apply expected knowledge and skills. These projects and the assignments that comprise them can be scaffolded to demonstrate maturation of students’ work over time. When paired with a rubric (more resources below), a well-designed final project can yield a wealth of information for assessment by helping instructors to understand how students developed mastery over time and which outcomes were most achievable across different groups.

Surveys and reflections

Student surveys and reflections offer an indirect measure of student learning by prompting students to report on their satisfaction, engagement, and changes in attitudes toward learning. Faculty can survey a large number of students using a validated instrument or one of their own design. Collecting rating scale data allows for a quantitative comparison of student feedback over time or across groups. By contrast, a well-designed reflection prompt can elicit qualitative information about learning experiences and has the added benefit of facilitating further learning by guiding students to integrate their understanding and engage in metacognitive reflection.

Exams and scored instruments

Validated concept inventories are specially designed instruments which test conceptual knowledge within a discipline. Inventories are developed, tested, and validated by faculty within the discipline and are intended to measure conceptual understanding, as opposed to intuition or rote learning. When administered at key points throughout the curriculum, scores from concept inventories can offer rich insight into curriculum structure and course sequencing.

Instructors often use self-designed tests or exams to determine how well students have mastered the course materials at different time points to provide feedback or assign grades. These instruments can be informative for assessment when exam questions are mapped to key concepts in the course and to course objectives, allowing the instructor to track understanding over time.

The University uses placement tests to determine the appropriate entry point for students into a curriculum based on current level of mastery for specific subjects. Placement scores may play a role in assessment as baseline data for measuring learning gains or to generate comparison groups to understand how students entering the curriculum at different points develop mastery over time.

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Using rubrics for assessment

Rubrics are a useful tool for increasing transparency, fairness, and reflection in a student-centered classroom. Most instructors will be familiar with the use of scoring rubrics, which can be used, for example, to align grading across TAs and instructors. Mastery rubrics offer a slight variation on the scoring rubric, by distinguishing among levels of mastery and explicitly describing ways in which classroom artifacts (student work) may demonstrate mastery at each level. Used strategically, rubrics supply information to instructors and students alike about progress toward course objectives and program level outcomes.

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Using Canvas to collect assessment data

Our Canvas Learning Management System simplifies routine collection of assessment data. Once you have established learning outcomes for your course, you can map specific assignments, or components of assignments, to their outcomes and then track student progress in a ‘mastery gradebook’. There are some best practices for staying organized and creating a system that is sustainable over time, so be sure to consult with the Educational Technology Services Canvas support team before you get started.

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  • Get support for all things Canvas from the UC San Diego Education Technology Services team. 
  • Preview Canvas features for assessment and outcomes mastery with this video tutorial (5 minutes).