There are myriad forms of assessment, and often some confusion between them, so this article helps to define Program-Level Assessment (PLA) and how institutions should be using it to measure a student’s learning process through their programs.
Evaluating student learning has been performed for as long as higher education has been in existence. Student learning outcomes assessment allows educators to conduct a form of review on how each student is progressing in a specific course, based on the stated objectives of the class. Over time, while course-level assessment of students’ work has remained an important facet of education, PLA has made its way to the forefront as a way to offer accountability and evaluation of curriculum or collection of activities that are more in-depth than grading students’ work in a single course. Broader assessments at the program level have become a point of interest for many institutions, making it necessary to understand what PLA is and how it’s being conducted in higher education today.
Definition of Program-Level Assessment
PLA assesses student learning across courses or a series of connected activities in order to measure how students are learning as they progress through a particular program (e.g., the major, general education). Each program has specific student learning outcomes (SLOs) that should be measured unrelated to individual course grades. The goal is to understand the student’s progress over the course of their college education and develop ways to improve the learning process.
Sample types of artifacts collected during the assessment process could include:
- Course-embedded assignments
- Student ePortfolios
- Capstone projects
- Evidence from co-curricular activities
- Student self-reflection analysis
- Digital badges/credentials
Why Program-Level Assessment?
The point of a PLA is to ensure learning outcomes are addressed across the curriculum, and ultimately, the value can be recognized in students’ learning experiences based on their needs and development processes. In a world where higher education is constantly being encouraged and in some cases, required to prove its worth and level of accountability to students, PLA works to demonstrate that courses and co-curricular activities within a single program align with the objectives of the program.
The ability to evaluate on a broader scale, as is necessary with a general education level assessment, is pertinent to the ongoing success of any higher education program. While students are responsible for providing evidence of learning, several large burdens fall onto the faculty and assessors.
Challenges of Program-Level Assessment for Faculty
- Collecting a large amount of unstructured data from multiple sources
- Developing rubrics to assess the data as a collection of evidence-based learning
- Figuring out how to assess the progression of the student and their SLOs as they move through the program
- Forming a cross-department and objective assessment team that is trained on PLA
- Delivering objective analysis of the unstructured data in a structured format the program can use to take action
For some, the process of assessing students across a curriculum included the use of unresponsive, slow online rubrics and assessment sites that failed to meet the needs of instructors. These tools fell short of offering a comprehensive, fully functioning technology-based platform that facilitated both learning and reflection on the student level and program-wide assessment for educators. Without workable tools to ease the process of PLA, the evaluation of SLOs across an entire curriculum isn’t feasible.
In today’s ever-changing higher education environment, PLA requires a methodology rooted in the connections students make between educational experiences, program outcomes, and their personal development. These connections must be portable from one program to the next, and feedback about those connections and the experiences and curriculum that sparked them should be shareable at key points in a student’s educational journey. Several institutions of higher education have seen success in developing and implementing PLAs that accomplish these substantial goals by utilizing the right technology and tools.
Example of a PLA Process at High Point University
Dr. William Carpenter, Director of the Honors Scholar Program at High Point University, shared his methodology on how they conduct PLA of their Honors Program students in a recent webinar titled “Assessing Learning Outcomes Across the Curriculum.” In the discussion, Dr. Carpenter explains why they needed PLA,
“As the campus and student population was growing, we had so many different departments and majors throughout the honors program. We concluded that there was no common pedagogy and curricular focus, but it was clear the honors program needed to be a qualitatively different general education experience that provided a deliverable to students upon completion.”
To do that, the co-curricular experiences needed to be a part of the students’ learning, so that they could connect and reflect on those in the realm of their educational experiences. A PLA was then implemented to evaluate the alignment between these broad program-level goals and the actual learning outcomes of students. The University put in place an assessment process that followed a clear path, including:
High Point University Honors Program PLA Process
- The curation of learning artifacts by students such as projects completed in Honors Program courses
- Mapping those artifacts to the appropriate program level outcomes
- Tagging artifacts with specific skills
- Performing formative and summative assessments by instructors
- Program assessment at various stages of the process to gather program-specific data
In order to have a PLA that was capable of evaluating the alignment of program objectives to SLOs, utilizing a student-centric tool was a necessary component of the process. High Point University selected an ePortfolio and assessment tool that also integrated with their learning management system (LMS) to offer a fuller picture of student competencies and growth within the Honors Program.
Not only does a portable, highly visible tool like an ePortfolio work to simplify the process of PLA, but it also delivers a method students to transfer their often decentralized achievements to a centralized hub that showcases their efforts throughout the completion of a specific program.
How to Get Started
For institutions of higher education to make informed decisions surrounding the future path of programs of all shapes and sizes, PLA is a must. Identifying the gaps between SLOs and program objectives, having the right data to address those concerns, and ultimately having the ability to demonstrate the effectiveness of programs and student achievements creates a greater level of accountability.
Since many burdens of a manual process fall onto faculty and prohibit the success of developing a PLA process, working with a technology partner focused on showcasing student outcomes and skills is one of the first steps down the road toward PLA. With seamless integration, simplified implementation and user navigation, and successful widespread adoption of an ePortfolio platform, PLA that meets the needs of faculty, students, and other stakeholders can be easily within reach, without the common barriers found with past assessment methodology.
- Levels of Assessment: From the Student to the Institution (Miller and Wright 2005)
- Webinar: Assessing Learning Outcomes Across the Curriculum (High Point University and Portfolium 2017)
- The Art and Science of Assessing General Education Outcomes (Leskes and Wright 2005)
- General Education: A Self-Study Guide for Review and Assessment (Leskes and Miller
*12.18.17 Editor’s Note: PLA is used in this article as an abbreviation of “Program-Level Assessment” in order to speed reading comprehension and not intended to replace the commonly used acronym PLA for “Prior-Learning Assessment” which is used to assess student competencies outside of the classroom or learned prior to enrolling at an institution.