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Bridging Program Assessment to Student Learning

How do your individual course learning outcomes relate to program assessment? How can you design your course to not only assess program learning outcomes but also to make those outcomes transparent to your students? This post shares some ways to rethink course level outcomes and assessment to support your program’s efforts as well as student learning.


Student in lecture hall
ILC Classroom shoot, Math, Katherine Johnson, Photo by Madison Park

Program Assessment

When we think about program assessment, we often think beyond the individual course or specific student learning experiences. Sometimes, assessment efforts may focus on activities outside of courses, like exit interviews and surveys, or they may focus on a student’s culminating experience, such as a capstone portfolio or thesis.

These efforts are excellent ways to understand the student experience and use programmatic assessment to make curriculum changes to support student learning. But what may be missing is how we can use programmatic assessment to help students make sense of the entirety of their degree program–and to help instructors to better place their individual course within the larger programmatic context.

When I was given the chance to design a brand-new writing course for engineering students, I began to tap into the power of using frameworks beyond my class to help me plan my individual course learning outcomes and summative assessments. To plan this course, I started by looking at the mission statements from the College of Engineering and College of Arts and Sciences. I then reviewed the program learning outcomes for the specific engineering program this class would support. In addition, I was aware of the influence of outside accreditation on engineering curriculum, so I looked at those outcomes as well. After I understood these elements, only then did I set out to design my learning outcomes, thus creating outcomes that aligned with the program’s learning outcomes. Most importantly, this course became a bridge to move students from their first-year writing experiences to the skills they would need to demonstrate mastery over by the time they graduated.

Thus, I was able to design a class that felt integrated into the program’s curriculum and could be scaffolded and built on in the classes students take after this writing course. The outcomes were also deeply rooted in the program’s learning outcomes as well as the outcomes determined by outside accreditation, meaning that if the program wanted, they could use assignments from the writing class to assess student achievement of 2-3 outcomes. The assessments I designed also helped me understand what students were learning in my specific class–and these assessments can also show how students are performing as they are introduced to or develop new skills that are taken up elsewhere in the curriculum.

For me, this revealed the power of thinking about program learning outcomes and University Learning Outcomes when we design our individual courses. Not only does it mean that we create learning experiences that fit onto a curriculum map but that we can articulate how these experiences fit into the complete picture of a student’s education in our programs. Furthermore, designing courses to create alignment between individual courses and program learning outcomes allows us, as individual instructors, to better understand our program outcomes and our curriculum maps. Together, we can use this intentional design to help students make sense of their education, draw connections among classes, and understand how learning outcomes (be they course or program or university) relate to their goals and interests beyond the classroom.

Incidentally, if your program hires a new faculty member, or if you need to teach a new course, you can use this alignment to articulate the goals of a course. Placing the course in context will help faculty to directly connect the experiences and assessments within a specific course to experiences in previous and subsequent courses, which will positively affect student learning experiences. As a new faculty member, I wished someone had helped me understand the courses I was teaching within the full context and how a given class was framed in our program or within Foundational Studies!

One way to approach alignment is to think about adding a level to the backward planning table you might be familiar with from our Course Design Institute or other backward course design workshops. Briefly, backward planning starts by creating your course learning outcomes and then determining scaffolding, formative assessments, and summative assessments. Instead of starting with projects you want students to complete or chapters you want them to read, you can use backward planning to ensure that your course works toward student achievement of specific learning goals. Thus, if you add an additional step–how a course learning outcome is connected to or aligned with a specific program learning outcome–you can plan a course within the program-level frameworks (or even university-level).

This table might offer a useful tool to help you create alignment between your course and program learning outcomes. I provide an example from the engineering communication course I created. You can start with the program outcome your course is identified as meeting on your program’s curriculum map–or a program outcome you think your course will focus on, if your course isn’t on the map.

Program Learning Outcome(s) Learning Outcome Supported Level of Achievement Expected Assessments Used to Meet Expectations
Example: An ability to recognize the ongoing need to acquire new knowledge, to choose appropriate learning strategies, and to apply this knowledge Connect communication skills development with career goals, creating a plan to continue developing as both a communicator and professional Introduce Professionalization plan memo + updated resume

This table pulls from materials designed by Carleton University, who hosted a workshop on this topic. I have created our own worksheet that you can use individually or work through with your colleagues to explore how you might create alignment in your courses.

If you’re interested in exploring more, consider working through the questions on our worksheet. Your thoughts and ideas can then influence conversations around assessment approaches and measures in your department–or you can use your answers to see how other instructors who teach the same course approach them. Once you understand how your course aligns with program learning outcomes, you can also find ways to make those connections clearer to students. One method is that you could explicitly connect course learning outcomes to the program’s on your syllabus. Another is that you explicitly highlight both course and program outcomes targeted by your assignment, using a transparent assignment template.

You may find that these exercises help you to take information that is tacit or unarticulated and make it more visible to yourself, your colleagues, and your students–and then you can use what you see in your class to highlight how well students can meet outcomes and where you and your program can make changes to benefit your students. And as you work through these conversations, be sure to reach out to the CTL for support or to schedule a consultation!




Learning Outcomes Workshop materials. Carleton University. This resource offers materials that inspired our workshop, including a useful Participant Toolkit, which is a document you could work through as a program/department to explore PLO/CLO alignment.

Transparent Assignment Template. This template provides a framework to make learning more visible to students, including ways to communicate how an assignment aligns with course-level learning outcomes (or even PLOs!)

Authentic Assessment Examples. Here are some models and examples of assessments you can embed that support student learning in ways they can understand as relating to their needs and experiences.


Written by:

Jenn Mallette