Assessment Terminology

Action Plans

Action plans describe the changes a program intended to implement to address curriculum or program deficiencies identified as a result of previous assessment processes. Action plans can include changes to the curriculum (e.g., course sequencing), changes in program policies or procedures, changes to the assessment plan or methods, changes to pedagogical practices, or implementation of new technology and/or assignments.


Assessment is the systematic, continuous process of gathering, reviewing, and using data on student learning and program outcomes for the purpose of making improvements. Four major steps are involved: establishing clear, measurable outcomes; giving students/programs time to achieve those outcomes; systematically gathering multiple sources of evidence to determine how well those outcomes were met; and using this information to improve teaching and learning.

Authentic Assessment

Assessment where the tasks that learners perform are intended to reflect the contexts and realities of what students really learn. This term is usually used in opposition to standardized testing.

Classroom-based Assessment

Using a variety of assessment techniques, course instructors gather information about what students know and are able to do, and provide positive supportive feedback to students. Student work created in courses is often used as evidence of student learning on the program level as well.           

Closing the Loop

Closing the loop consists of following up on an implemented change to see if it had the intended effect. Closing the loop is about the evaluation of action plans and reflecting on the process to determine future plans and assessment methods.

Direct vs. Indirect

Direct measures of student learning provide evidence of student learning by examining the demonstration of student’s skill or competency. Faculty members using a rubric to evaluate aspects of a student’s writing is a direct measure. So too are judges rating a student’s speech. Indirect measures of student learning imply that learning occurred and include perceptions or attitudes related to a student abilities. A student’s self-report on a questionnaire or a transcript showing the number of math courses taken are examples of indirect measures. Since all measures have a subjective element, direct vs. indirect is less a dichotomy than a continuum. 

Embedded Assessment

Assessment techniques integrated with coursework or other learning experiences that are designed to yield direct evidence of student performance in regard to learning outcomes. An example is a senior capstone project, evaluated according to a rubric that is aligned with departmental learning outcomes and provides direct evidence of student performance. Other examples of embedded assessment include “signature assignments” in core, required courses; externally evaluated exhibitions of student work, and the evaluation of service learning experiences in terms of departmental student learning outcomes.

Formative vs. Summative Evaluation

Summative evaluation occurs at the end of a program and its intent is to provide a status quo “snapshot.” Formative evaluation occurs during a program and is intended to inform subsequent activities and programmatic policies and procedures. Formative evaluations are used for improvement; summative evaluations are used for making decisions or for accountability.


Goals are broad, clear, and general statements of what the program intends to do or what we would want students to be able to do. These goals are not specific enough to be measurable, but are intended to provide a framework for more specific outcomes. Just as goals derive from a unit’s mission statement, so too do student learning outcomes derive from the unit’s goals. Outcomes describe what the goals actually mean in practice.

Outcome vs. Objective

Student learning outcomes provide a description of what students should know or be able to do at a particular point in time. Performance objectives are even more specific than learning outcomes inasmuch as they identify concrete targets on a particular measure at a particular time. Each learning outcome might have multiple performance objectives associated with it.

Performance Assessment

Learners are asked to demonstrate their knowledge or abilities by doing something rather than answering test questions.

Quantitative vs. Qualitative

Quantitative measures of student achievement use tools that results in numbers that can be manipulated statistically. Quantitative approaches are used with large groups and to test competing hypotheses about student learning. Qualitative measures use texts as the raw data, providing a more holistic, richer content to assist with explaining student achievement. Qualitative measures often help generate hypotheses about student learning; quantitative measures test these hypotheses. Though there are pros and cons attached to each approach, using both provides a more extensive view of what students are learning.


A rubric is a tool used to interpret and evaluate students’ work against an explicit set of criteria. Unlike holistic rubrics that provide an overall score, task-specific or descriptive rubrics are designed to provide detailed assessments of aspects of a student’s performance. These more detailed rubrics provide a more reliable assessment of task performance but are more difficult to construct. The AAC&U rubrics are a good starting place for programs looking to develop rubrics to help evaluate student skills and abilities.

Student Learning Outcome vs. Program Outcome

Student learning outcomes specify key knowledge, skills, and abilities that students in particular programs should know or be able to do upon program completion. Program outcomes reflect the services a program provides or delineates programmatic student achievement areas (e.g., retention or graduation rates). You can read more about the similarities and differences between these two types of outcomes on our resource page.


Achievement targets provide the expected level of performance for each outcome-measure pair. Achievement targets are usually expressed as percentages or numbers expected (e.g., “80% of students will meet or exceed expectations on the rubric items for this outcome”). Program faculty or members of a unit use their professional, expert judgment to determine what these benchmarks are and what is considered “acceptable performance.” Targets should be realistic, rigorous, and achievable.       


Using a formal assessment instrument to measure students’ knowledge or abilities. Usually, these tests are standardized such that all learners are asked the same questions in the same order and under specific conditions (remember the #2 pencil?).


Every measure of student learning contains some amount of error resulting in an imperfect measurement. By using multiple methods to assess student performance, confidence in interpreting results is greatly increased. 

Validity vs. Reliability

Validity involves whether or not the assessment actually assesses the knowledge or abilities it was intended to assess. Reliability refers to the consistency of an assessment rating or score. Inter-rater reliability, for example, is the reliability or agreement among individuals applying given criteria to rate performance.