Frequently asked questions

Read through our frequently asked questions to find the answers you’re looking for regarding curriculum, learning design, and assessment.

Why assess?

At Northern Arizona University, we assess for two reasons.

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First, we want to improve student learning. Meaningful assessment, part of what we call “intentional curriculum,” asks, “Are students learning what we want them to learn?” Faculty answer this question by:

  • considering their course/program/institutional learning outcomes
  • identifying where in the curriculum students have opportunities to learn those outcomes
  • measuring the outcomes
  • analyzing and interpreting the results

Based on assessment findings, faculty might make changes to courses, curricula, teaching methods, or assessment strategies and tools in order to improve student learning.

Second, we want to provide evidence of the quality of our university’s education to all who might be interested, including:

  • current and prospective students
  • parents
  • employers
  • accrediting agencies
  • lawmakers

For example, our institution belongs to the Voluntary System of Accountability, “an initiative by public four-year institutions to provide clear, accessible, and comparable information on the undergraduate experience to important constituencies through a common web report—the college portrait.” Student learning assessment information is provided as part of the Student Learning Outcomes section of the College Portrait.

Why can't we use grades?

Faculty use grades as evidence of student learning in individual courses. However, grades are not reliable and valid indicators of student learning at the program level for several reasons.

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First, grading standards may vary across faculty teaching the same course, or even from assignment to assignment within an individual faculty member’s course.

Second, faculty may include things unrelated to program student learning outcomes when assigning grades, such as class attendance or prompt submission of work. Third, grades give us a general indicator of student performance in a course; they do not tell us how well students achieved specific program learning outcomes. For a more extended discussion of grades and assessment, see Linda Suskie’s 2009 Assessing Student Learning, pages 10-11.       

Why can't we use student survey data?

When assessing student learning outcomes at the program level, we ask, “What do students know and are able to do as a result of an academic program?”

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Surveys provide us with information about students’ opinions and satisfaction regarding the program and are considered indirect measures of student learning. In order to confidently make decisions regarding student learning in a program, faculty must also use direct measures of student learning, such as:

  • portfolios
  • examination scores
  • capstone projects

The most robust academic program assessment plans incorporate a combination of direct and indirect measures

How will assessment data be used?

At Northern Arizona University, program assessment data is housed in the individual academic programs.

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Programs are asked to submit an Annual Assessment Report and are provided with feedback on that report from University Assessment Committee (UAC) and the Office of Curriculum, Learning Design and Academic Assessment (OCLDAA). In the annual report, faculty provide information regarding their:

  • assessment conversations and action plan
  • collection and analysis of evidence
  • implementation of findings

Feedback is provided to assist programs with improving their assessment of student learning. The reports are available to the public; however, the feedback is available only to those with a Northern Arizona University login and password.

One of the university’s six principles for effective assessment is to “promote a culture of encouragement.” To that end, we support faculty as they document and use assessment findings to make improvements to their programs. At the same time, we believe that program faculty should be free to discuss and use assessment findings without concern for negative consequences.