August 2011
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Down and In: Assessment Practices at the Program Level

The National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA) has released its Program Level Survey Report, a collection of data on the type and perception of assessment practices in individual departments and programs at two- and four-year colleges and universities. The survey, a web-based questionnaire, was sent to randomly selected program or department heads at all regionally accredited undergraduate institutions in the United States—public, private, and for-profit—and collected responses on the use of various assessment tools across different academic disciplines.

The results of the survey show significant differences in the frequency and types of assessment conducted in different disciplines, as well as differences in the drivers for assessment and uses made of the results. Responses also reveal a gap in the perception of assessment between the department and program heads surveyed for the current report and the chief academic officers asked similar questions in a 2009 survey.


Assessment across the Disciplines

  • Use of particular assessment tools varied greatly across the disciplines. Respondents from 83 percent of education programs indicated their students take standardized exams (compared with 30 percent of respondents across all disciplines), while 75 percent of engineering respondents and 73 percent computer science respondents reported use of culminating projects or demonstrations (compared with 55 percent for all disciplines).
  • Use of assessment tools appears to be influenced by program accreditation. Education and health science programs, which typically have outside accreditation, use the greatest number of assessment methods. Respondents from social science and Associate in Arts transfer programs used fewer measures.
  • Accredited programs also reported more faculty involvement in assessment, with 41 percent of respondents from accredited programs reporting their entire faculty was involved in assessment, compared with 23 percent for nonaccredited programs.

Drivers and Uses of Assessment

  • Across all disciplines, commitment to improvement on the program level and faculty interest were the most common drivers of assessment, with more than 75 percent of respondents calling these drivers highly or moderately important.
  • The most commonly reported use of assessment results was for program review (76 percent), followed by improving instruction (68 percent).
  • Asked what institutional or programmatic changes were made based on assessment results, 73 percent of respondents indicated changes in curriculum; 49 percent indicated changes in assessment practices, and 47 percent indicated changes in teaching practices.

Faculty and Administrative Perceptions

  • Results from a 2009 survey of Chief Academic Officers (CAOs) indicated that CAOs believed more assessment activities of all kinds were taking place at their institutions than was reported in 2011 by program and department heads. For instance, more than 80 percent of CAOs responded that their institutions made use of portfolios and external examiners, while fewer than 30 percent of program-level respondents reported use of these methods.
  • While CAOs and program heads both indicated that faculty expertise is important to successful assessment, opinions in the two groups differed regarding other issues. Forty-five percent of faculty respondents indicated that more knowledge about assessment at other institutions would be helpful, compared with 18 percent of CAOs.
  • Most program heads (66 percent) indicated faculty release time from teaching duties would be the best way to improve assessment at their institution. A majority of CAO’s (66 percent) said more faculty involvement would be the best way to advance assessment.




  • Capstone courses were the most popular assessment tool across all disciplines, with 68 percent of respondents reporting the use of capstones.
  • Across all disciplines, only 21 percent of respondents reported receiving course time release to work on assessment.
  • Survey results indicate accredited programs engage in a greater variety of assessment activities but do not necessarily dedicate more total resources to assessment than nonaccredited programs.