Office of Educational Assessment

Program Goals

Most academic programs and departments operate as though they have learning goals for their majors even if they have not formally articulated them. The existence of a curriculum in the major and/or of capstone courses, senior seminars, and final projects that ask students to demonstrate understanding of the concepts, methods, and skills in the discipline suggest that learning goals for majors not only exist in the minds of departmental faculty but that there is some agreement on them, as well. Articulating departmental or program learning goals makes those implicit goals explicit.


The two questions that faculty in departments must answer are the same that they address when identifying learning goals for their courses:

What do I want students to know?
What do I want them to be able to do when they graduate with a degree in this field?

Answers to those questions may present some challenges, because they require the consensus of departmental or programmatic faculty, as well as consideration of disciplinary definitions and recommendations. The American Psychology Association’s Board of Educational Affairs, for example, endorsed a set of learning goals for psychology majors in 2002.

Because the cultures and practices of departments vary quite a bit, there is no single template for determining departmental learning goals for majors.  Five examples suggest the variety of ways a department might begin the departmental learning goals conversation. While there are no templates for the process of identifying learning goals, a general rule to follow is that goals must have the approval of most of the faculty teaching in the department. In addition, they should be connected in meaningful ways with the required curriculum of the major, particularly with the learning goals of the courses offered in the department.

Assessment Methods

Just as processes for articulating departmental  learning goals are influenced by departmental practices and culture, so should assessment of methods be influenced by departmental approaches.

Usually the first assessment step a department takes after articulating its learning goals is mapping the curriculum to those goals.  Curricular maps illustrate where goals are being addressed across the major.  They allow departments to identify where there are gaps in teaching and in asking students to practice specific goals, which allows faculty to better identify curricular needs for majors and budgetary priorities.

After the curricular map, there are a variety of methods for assessing learning in the major. Direct methods include:

  • Capstone Course or Capstone-like Course (e.g., senior seminar) Evaluation. Faculty review of student performance in capstones or of senior theses to draw conclusions about program/curriculum.
  • Course-embedded Assessment. Shared questions on final exams, shared paper topics in or types of papers required in senior-level courses, evaluated by two or more faculty.
  • External Tests and Exams. GRE scores, ETS’s Major Field Achievement Tests, and national board certification exams, for example.
  • Portfolio Evaluation. Faculty determine portfolio contents and methods of collection and review a sample of portfolios to determine how well students meet learning goals for the major.
  • Pre-test/Post-test Evaluation. Students take an exam upon entry into the major and again as they complete it to determine if their knowledge base in the field has increased.
  • Observation, Videotape or Audiotape Evaluation. Performance-based majors, such as speech or dance may want to observe students early and late in their majors.
  • External Reviewers. Departments bring in community members/professionals to help evaluate student presentations or performances, senior-theses, or portfolios.

Indirect methods include student self-assessment, which is and should be a part of any complete assessment process. Indirect methods are as follows:

  • Student course evaluations, particularly if they include course learning goals.
  • Student surveys, such as those administered to entering students, seniors, and alumni.
  • Exit interviews of seniors conducted by departments.
  • Employer surveys.
  • Students’ written self-reflections/self-assessment on their learning—on coursework completed for individual classes, at the ends of classes, at the end of the major, or before and after beginning the major.