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Assessing Student Learning Outcomes in Degree and Certificate Programs

  • Responsible Office: Academic Program Integrity and Assessment, Office of the Provost
  • Current Approved Version: 03/09/2020
  • Policy Type: Administrative

Policy Statement and Purpose

Virginia Commonwealth University is committed to providing students the opportunity to learn what the institution and disciplinary field expects, and to utilize data regarding student learning to support the quality, effectiveness and continuous improvement of academic programs. 

To that end, the purpose of this policy is to outline VCU’s expectations and standards for learning outcomes assessment in degree and certificate programs. Moreover, the policy ensures VCU meets the requirements set forth by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC), core requirement 8.2a, Student Achievement: (a) student learning outcomes in education programs.

At VCU, assessing student learning outcomes in degree and certificate programs involves faculty, academic departments, department chairs and/or designee(s), the VCU Assessment Council and the Office of the Provost.  

The responsibility for creating and maintaining the assessment plan is shared among the department chair and the faculty. Department chairs foster the practice of learning outcomes assessment as a necessary aspect of their department’s commitment to student learning. They delegate responsibility to faculty members to ensure that a high quality plan is maintained, and they coordinate with their VCU Assessment Council representative to provide administrative oversight within the department. The role of faculty in assessment is embedded in their responsibility for the course and program level curriculum. That is, faculty design and deliver a degree or certificate level curriculum that is predicated on the belief that the courses provide opportunities and experiences for students to achieve the expected learning outcomes. Hence, faculty are responsible for using assessment to query the design of the curriculum in terms of the learning outcomes, to better understand student learning, to use assessment findings to deepen and improve student learning, and to document student learning. While not every faculty member teaching in a program will be involved in the operations of collecting and analyzing evidence of learning, at the least every faculty member must understand 1) how the program level curriculum has been designed in terms of the learning students are expected to achieve and 2) that program courses are responsible for explicitly providing students opportunities (i.e., assignments, tests, and other required tasks) to learn and practice the content, skills, and abilities the learning outcomes statements identify.  The articulation of courses to program level learning outcomes is represented in the curriculum map.

Noncompliance with this policy may result in disciplinary action up to and including termination. VCU supports an environment free from retaliation. Retaliation against any employee who brings forth a good faith concern, asks a clarifying question, or participates in an investigation is prohibited.

Who Should Know This Policy

All university members who are involved in the design, delivery and administration of degree and certificate programs are responsible for knowing this policy and familiarizing themselves with its contents and provisions.


Assessment Management System (AMS) 

VCU’s assessment management system is an online, web-based system for managing learning outcomes assessment. The AMS facilitates the documentation and demonstration of evidence of student learning for each of the university's degree and certificate programs. The AMS also documents assessment work including improvement efforts informed by assessment findings.  

Compliance and Integrity Report (C&I Report)

The Compliance and Integrity Report includes an audit of degree and certificate program assessment reporting completion and an analysis of reporting quality. The C&I Report summarizes compliance and integrity data at the institutional level. The report disaggregates data at the level of the school, college and center, and at the level of the degree and certificate program assessment plan. The Office of the Provost prepares the C&I Report annually.   

Curriculum Inventory Management (CIM) system 

The curriculum inventory management system is the online web-based system for managing course and program-level additions and modifications.

Curriculum map

A curriculum map is a visual layout that illustrates the intentional link between the curriculum and the student learning outcomes. A program-level curriculum map identifies which courses address the program-level student learning outcomes. Curriculum maps are used for gap analyses, to plan modifications to a program and to explain to students and other stakeholders how the curriculum is designed so that students have adequate opportunities to achieve the expected learning outcomes.  

Student learning outcomes

Student learning outcomes are statements of what students are expected to know, understand and/or be able to do after completion of a class, required courses such as general education, and a degree or certificate program. This policy concerns student learning outcomes at the degree and certificate program level. Student learning outcomes provide focus and direction for curriculum design and student learning outcomes assessment.

Student Learning Outcomes Assessment Plan

The Student Learning Outcomes Assessment Plan comprises a mission/purpose statement for the degree or certificate program, program level expected student learning outcomes, measures and targets for the learning outcomes and a curriculum map. Additionally, an assessment plan provides the annual operational plan about how, where and when assessments are administered and who is responsible for which tasks.  Finally, the plan includes assessment findings, analyses of assessment findings and plans to maintain and/or improve student learning. Student learning outcomes assessment plans are maintained in VCU’s assessment management system (AMS). 


The Office of the Provost officially interprets this policy. This office is responsible for obtaining approval for any revisions as required by the policy Creating and Maintaining Policies and Procedures through the appropriate governance structures. Please direct policy questions to the Director of Academic Program Integrity and Assessment in the Office of the Provost.

Policy Specifics and Procedures

I.  Responsibilities

VCU faculty members are responsible for the following:

1. Creating clear, measurable expected student learning outcomes for the degree or certificate program.

2. Delivering a degree or certificate level curriculum that offers students sufficient opportunities (via courses and assignments) to achieve the learning outcomes.

3. Gathering, analyzing and interpreting evidence of student learning tied to the student learning outcomes. 

4. Using the information from the analysis and interpretation of assessment data to understand, improve and document student learning.

Academic departments, via department chairs and/or designee(s), are responsible for the following:

1. Creating and maintaining a program-level student learning outcomes assessment plan for degree and certificate programs in VCU’s AMS.

2. Creating and maintaining an accurate curriculum map.

3. Creating and maintaining accurate program-level student learning outcomes statements in VCU publications, notably the VCU Bulletin, department webpages and promotional literature.

The VCU Assessment Council, comprising representatives from deans’ offices and select academic centers, is responsible for the following: 

1. Providing advice, recommendations and support for institutional-level assessment planning and initiatives at VCU, functioning as liaisons between their unit and the Office of the Provost.  

2. Ensuring compliance and integrity of annual learning outcomes assessment reporting for all programs in their college, school or center.

3. Collaborating with the Office of the Provost to plan and administer assessment quality reviews and plans for improving the practice of assessing student learning. 

4. Fostering a culture of learning outcomes assessment at VCU that  

a. embodies continuous improvement,

b. deploys measurable outcomes and rigorous assessment processes,  

c. uses assessment findings to understand, enhance and document student learning, and

d. provides assurance that degree and certificate programs comply with this policy.

The Office of the Provost provides institutional oversight for learning outcomes assessment and support and guidance for the improvement of assessment plans.  The Office of the Provost is not responsible for editing or correcting assessment plans.  The Office is responsible for the following: 

1. Ensuring that assessment council members annually receive the status of each assessment plan’s compliance and integrity via the annual Compliance and Integrity Report.  

2. Coordinating with assessment council members, provide support and guidance for programs to develop, improve, or correct assessment plans.

II.  Creating and Maintaining a Student Learning Outcomes Assessment Plan

1. Each degree and certificate program must have a complete program-level student learning outcomes assessment plan in VCU’s AMS.

2. The assessment plan must include the following: 

a. A mission or purpose statement for the degree or certificate program.

b. Expected outcomes for student learning that specify measurable knowledge, skills and dispositions that students will acquire via the program (i.e., curriculum and where appropriate, co-curriculum).

c. Direct and indirect measures for assessing each expected outcome. 

d. Targets specifying the percentage of students expected to meet or exceed performance standards on a measure. 

e. A curriculum map that indicates which courses are designed to give student opportunities to learn and practice the learning outcomes. 

f. An operational plan that includes roles, responsibilities and a schedule of activities and deliverables for each year’s assessment plan.

3. Programs with concentrations (tracks) will create and assess learning outcomes specific to the concentration. The department chair or a designee is responsible for this.  

a. Assessing a concentration can be a stand-alone assessment plan or embedded within an existing plan.

b. Concentration assessment plans embedded within an existing plan must clearly identify which learning outcomes are specific to the concentration. 

4. Programs implementing a teach-out plan for program closure must maintain the assessment plan in the AMS until closure is officially recognized by the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) and SACSCOC.  The department chair or a designee is responsible for this.  

5. Programs may set a two- or three-year cycle for assessing the student learning outcomes.  The department chair or a designee is responsible for this.  

a. The two- or three-year schedule for assessing learning outcomes must be documented in the AMS; e.g., nine learning outcomes may be assessed in a three-year cycle of three outcomes each year.

b. All learning outcomes must be assessed within the two- or three-year cycle. 

6. Degree and certificate programs that do not meet enrollment thresholds for assessment reporting will be exempted from reporting during the current assessment cycle.  

a. Enrollment thresholds for assessment will be established by the deans’ office that oversees the academic programs.    

III.  Annual Reporting Schedule

Department chairs (or designees) are required to administer a schedule of meetings, tasks and responsibilities for assessing all programs and that is in alignment with the following:   

a. August: Faculty prepare for the administration of the assessment plan for the academic year by addressing the following: when and where the assessments will be administered; who is responsible for administering the assessment plan; how the data are collected and when they will be analyzed. Programs on a multi-year cycle confirm which outcomes are to be assessed. 

b. September through May: Faculty collect and analyze evidence of student learning.

c. October (1st Friday): Faculty report assessment findings from prior year and make plans for educational improvement for the new academic year. Assessment findings and plans for improvements are documented in VCU’s AMS. 

IV.  Using Student Learning Outcomes Assessment to Promote Program-Level Quality, Effectiveness and Continuous Improvement

Departments are required to have a process in place for using student learning outcomes assessment data to promote program-level quality, effectiveness and continuous improvement.  The department chair or designee is responsible for this.  

1. This process, including plans informed by assessment findings, must be documented in the AMS.  

2. The following are strongly recommended:  

a. Prior to meeting to discuss assessment, provide faculty with an agenda, learning outcomes, current findings, curriculum maps, and status reports on prior improvements informed by assessment.    

b. Emphasize that the purpose of assessing student learning outcomes is to better understand, improve and enhance student learning. 

c. Emphasize that assessment results should not dictate decisions. Faculty use their professional judgment to determine what the assessment data mean and what action plans are warranted. 

V.  Using Assessment to Inform Course and Curriculum Proposals 

One purpose of student learning outcomes assessment is to determine the degree to which the curriculum enables students to achieve the learning faculty expect of them. Given this, new courses, course modifications and changes to the curriculum must be in alignment with the assessment plan elements (II. above) and supported by assessment findings. 

1. Proposals for new courses, course modifications and changes to curriculum must provide in the Curriculum Inventory Management (CIM) system a curriculum map that illustrates the alignment of the proposed change to the student learning outcomes. This applies to degree and certificate programs.  

2. Proposals for new courses, course modifications and changes to curriculum must present in CIM a rationale for change that is aligned to and/or informed by assessment.  


There are no forms associated with this policy and procedures.

Related Documents

1. SACSCOC Standard 8.2.a Student outcomes: educational programs

2. VCU Bulletin

3. Academic Affairs Charge to the Assessment Council (pending: link to assessment webpage) 

4. 9 Principles of Good Practice for Assessing Student Learning

Revision History

This policy supersedes the following archived policies:  

Approval/Revision Date Title
12/13/2013 Assessing Student Learning Outcomes


1. What is an example of an effective assessment plan?  

Examples of assessment plans are available on the assessment webpage. Go to: (pending)

2. Where is help for writing or revising an assessment plan? 

Contact information for help with writing or improving an assessment plan is available on the assessment webpage. Additionally, guides for writing learning outcomes, designing and/or selecting measures of student learning and for constructing a curriculum map are also available on the assessment webpage. Go to: (pending)

3. What are direct and indirect measures? 

Direct measures provide tangible evidence of student learning such as a paper, a presentation, a project or examination. Indirect measures indicate that learning has probably occurred such as end of course grades, retention and graduation rates and alumni and end-of-course surveys. A learning outcome must have at least one direct method of assessment. Indirect methods of assessment are optional. 

4. How are assessment findings and assessment reports used at VCU? 

Faculty use assessment findings to understand, document and improve student learning. 

The Office of the Provost uses assessment reports to demonstrate to stakeholders and accrediting agencies that educational programs at VCU 

• know what students are expected to know and know how to do upon completing a degree or certificate program

• know the degree to which students achieve these expected outcomes

• use assessment findings to maintain and/or make educational improvements 

5. What are the different levels of student learning outcomes assessment?                                                                                    

Student-level assessment focuses on how well individual students achieve course learning goals.  This kind of assessment, via tests, quizzes, papers, and such, leads to providing students with feedback and grades. 

Class-level assessment focuses on how well an entire class of students have achieved the expected learning. The purpose of this level of assessment is to enable a faculty member to reflect on how the course can be modified so as to improve student learning.  

Course-level assessment focuses on how well students in a multi-section course have achieved the expected learning. This level of assessment requires faculty to collaborate and agree on the expected learning for the course and on how best to assess the degree to which students across the sections achieve the learning.  

Program-level assessment focuses on how well students in a degree or certificate program have achieved the expected learning. At VCU, all degree and certificate programs must assess the degree to which students achieve the expected learning.   

6. What questions does an assessment plan quality review ask?    

• Is the mission/purpose statement for the program a living statement? Does it describe and inform the exigencies for which the program is preparing students?  

• Are the expected learning outcomes measurable, current and relevant? 

• Does the curriculum map indicate that students have multiple opportunities to learn and practice the expected learning outcomes? 

• Are the measures and targets for assessing student learning outcomes valid? 

• Are assessment findings annually reviewed, discussed and used to inform stewardship of student learning?

• What is the operational plan for administering the assessment plan and any action plans for improvement?