APR Update: Assessment Methods and Tools: A Way for Reviewers to Evaluate Rigor

Deborah B. Gentry, Ed.D., CFLE, NCFR Academic Program Liaison
CFLE Network
Deb Gentry

When Academic Program Committee members review materials, primarily syllabi, submitted by academic programs seeking first time approval or renewal, one criteria they keep in mind is level of rigor or cognitive challenge that is evidenced. Course objectives and/or student learning outcomes serve as evidence. Methods of assessing student learning along with any tools (e.g., rubrics, checklists, scoresheets, self-evaluation forms, peer evaluation forms, etc.) that are used to facilitate evaluation contribute more insight. Descriptions and directions for assignments and other learning activities provide an additional sense of the rigor of the course. Furthermore, reviewers look for upper level undergraduate and graduate level courses to feature more rigor than introductory undergraduate courses.

Ideally, all three components (objectives/outcomes; assessment methods and tools; and assignment descriptions and directions) should complement each other. For example, should a learning outcome for a course indicate that, by the end of the course, students should be able to analyze with proficiency, then at least one learning activity or assignment should, in turn, call for students to practice skills related to analysis. Directions should describe expectations for how the students should undertake such analysis. Lastly, if a rubric has been devised to facilitate the instructors’ assessment and evaluation of students’ abilities to analyze and shared with reviewers, its rating features (criteria/yardsticks and standards/markers) should correspond to those expectations. The focus of this column is assessment methods and techniques, with some examples that are relevant to teaching and learning about individual and family resilience.

Many readers may be familiar with the classic publication by Angelo and Cross (1993) titled Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers. In my view, it remains a worthy reference to consult for basic information about assessment and evaluation, as well as for specific ideas for innovative methods and techniques. However, a new book titled Learning Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Faculty by Barkley and Major (2016) provides fresh new perspectives about how to formulate high quality course goals/objectives and student learning outcomes; develop relevant learning activities and assignments; select or develop corresponding assessment techniques and tools; and review and report results to students and other interested parties. While Part 1 covers these basics, Part 2 provides numerous examples related to teaching and assessing in the cognitive domains of foundational knowledge, application, and integration, as well as the affective domains of “human dimension” and caring. The authors acknowledge these domains or dimensions arise from the work of L. Dee Fink and his Taxonomy of Significant Learning (2013).

Barkley and Majors make this distinction between course objectives and student learning outcomes: “…an objective is a target to aim for, while an outcome is the conclusion of an action. Thus, learning objectives identify what we hope will happen, while learning outcomes reflect the reality of what actually did happen…Thus, we identify learning objectives before we teach, and we determine learning outcomes after we teach…That said, we recognize that you can identify what you hope will be the outcome. Indeed, many accreditation and assessment programs ask faculty to identify learning outcomes in advance. To accomplish this, you may need to state the outcome in ‘future’ terms—‘a student will be able to’—or distinguish between targeted outcome and actual outcome” (p.20). In keeping with the theme of this issue of Network, a possible resilience related course learning outcome might be: By the end of this course, a successful learner will be able to describe 10 key processes associated with a family resilience theoretical framework as outlined by Froma Walsh (2012). How, then, might student learning regarding this outcome be assessed?

Assessment is a process of measuring knowledge, skills, attitudes, and/or beliefs students have acquired, most often in the context of the learning they have undertaken during their coursework. Assessment can be carried out at any point during a lesson, unit, or course. Every assessment need not lead to evaluation or judgment that results in points or grades. Sometimes, formative assessment results in meaningful feedback to a student about his or her abilities at the current point in time. A student can act on such feedback when carrying out a future learning activity or assignment that may well be graded. This would be an example of educative assessment. Other types of learning assessment are embedded assessment and authentic assessment. In addition to giving learners feedback on their progress, teachers can assess student progress in order to confirm their current approach to teaching is yielding good results or suggest a change in direction or strategy could be warranted. Institutional and external stakeholders expect teachers to provide evidence related to how well their students are learning. Lastly, learning assessment or classroom action research findings can be widely shared with fellow educators and, perhaps, lead to improvements in the profession through the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL).

Learning assessment methods and techniques can vary. When Academic Program Committee members review a set of course syllabi, they hope that most courses feature a variety of assessment methods. There are circumstances that warrant the sole use of quizzes and exams, but reviewers hope this is seldom the case within most academic programs. Though a unique example, when perusing recent syllabi submitted from an academic program applying for first time approval, reviewers noted the design for a parenting course allowed students to choose to complete as many as seven learning assessments from a selection of 18 that included creating a website, video, blog, infographic, magazine ad, comic strip, and/or artistic artifact; one-minute write-ups; an article summary; an interview; papers with various foci; and two exams. While a course related to family resilience may well not feature 15 or more learning assessments, it could certainly entail a handful of innovative and challenging ones.

In one chapter of their book, Barkley and Major outline best practices for teaching and assessing for the foundational knowledge domain and then describe ten different learning assessment techniques that could be used in measuring students’ knowledge proficiency. As illustration, here’s a possible knowledge-based learning outcome related to family resilience: Upon the completion of this course, students will be able to highlight the basic assumptions, concepts, and principles of resilience theory. A method of assessing students’ acquisition of knowledge along these lines would be to call upon them to individually create either a concept map featuring these aspects or, alternatively, what Barkley and Major describe as a “Comprehensive Factors List.” A comprehensive factors list is a form of brainstorming focused on recall of information that is done in a list or bullet list format” (p. 101). After 6-8 minutes, the maps or lists would be collected and reviewed by the instructor for accuracy and thoroughness. While this could be a question on an exam, it could also be an in-class class exercise.

Best practices for teaching and assessing within the application domain, along with ten different learning assessments, is the focus of another chapter in Barkley’s and Major’s book. Let’s consider this possible application-based learning outcome focusing on family resilience: Upon the completion of this course, students will be able to apply resilience theory to one or more new and different contexts. The authors call this technique “Consider This. Students would be directed to individually identify a non-family context within which resilience or lack of resilience could be observed (e.g., community, workplace, nature…), then map out or diagram on paper ways different elements of resilience theory could play out in that context. Once done, students would share their applications in pairs. Then, each pair would share with another pair. Each foursome would decide which application to share with the rest of the class. All written applications would be collected for instructor review for insightfulness and plausibility.

Following a similar format as with other chapters in Part 2, Barkley and Major highlight best practices for teaching and assessing within the integration domain in the ninth chapter of their book. If the following were a learning outcome for a course related to family resilience, the authors suggest nine possible ways it could be assessed: Upon the completion of this course, students will be able to integrate resilience theory and practice principles in order to suggest a constructive course of action for key characters described in a case situation. Students would be presented with information about a case (e.g., history of how a situation has developed; key characters, which could include various family members, teachers, family professionals; and a dilemma that key characters are grappling with. Students would be called upon, either individually or in small groups, to integrate all that they have come to know and believe about family resilience (e.g., factors, strategies, sources of empowerment and assistance, etc.) to formulate a positive, beneficial, and workable resolution for the dilemma. Resolutions, accompanied by a rationale, would be prepared in written form and, after sharing with fellow students in some manner, submitted to the instructor for review, evaluation, and feedback.

Though syllabi often feature one or more learning outcomes from the caring domain, devising and carrying out a good quality learning assessment technique to correspond may not be easily accomplished. Let’s consider this learning outcome: Upon the completion of this course, students will be able to exhibit caring and commitment for enhancing levels of resilience among families residing in their community. Barkley and Major address the caring domain in yet another chapter. Besides best practices related to teaching and assessing for this domain, they describe seven learning assessment techniques (LATs) that instructors could consider implementing. One of these LATs is called “Issue Awareness Ad” and could work nicely in the context of a course that focuses on family resilience. It involves asking students to identify and analyze a problematic resilience-based situation impacting numerous families in the local community, then calling upon them to compose and deliver a message that persuades relevant parties of the urgency of the problem and offers strategies for addressing it. The simplest means of delivery could be oral presentation to fellow classmates. Yet, students could be allowed to be more creative. They could create a simulated radio spot, television video footage, or oral testimony to share with policy-makers.

If assessment isn’t among your areas of strength as an educator, there are several steps you could take in order to enhance your knowledge and ability in this arena. Of course, self-study through reading is a strategy. Angelo’s and Cross’s classic book, as well as Barkley’s and Major’s book, are both practical and easy to read. Though providing more difficult and scholarly prose, two other well-known experts in assessment, Trudy Banta and Catherine Palomba have authored Assessment Essentials: Planning, Implementing, and Improving Assessment in Higher Education. Another strategy I like to recommend is partaking of faculty development offerings on this subject that may be offered by the teaching and learning center on your campus. Finally, consider using the CFLE email listserv to discuss learning assessment techniques for courses relevant to the 10 content areas. Send an email to [email protected] to reach all your CFLE colleagues and get the conversation started. You all likely have plenty to share, whether it be ideas, examples, challenges, and/or successes.


Angelo, T.A., & Cross, K.P. (1993). Classroom assessment techniques: A handbook for college teachers. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Banta, T.W., & Palomba, C.A. (2015). Assessment essentials: Planning, implementing, and improving assessment in higher education. (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Higher and Adult Education.

Barkley, E.F., & Major, C.H. (2016). Learning assessment techniques: A handbook for college faculty. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Fink, L.D. (2013). Creating significant learning experiences: An integrated approach to designing college courses. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Walsh, F. (2012). Family resilience: Strengths forged through adversity. In F. Walsh (Ed.), Normal family processes: Growing diversity and complexity (4th ed., pp. 399-427). New York, NY: Guilford Press.