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Assessment at Northwestern

At Northwestern, the assessment of students’ learning serves multiple purposes. First and foremost, we consider assessment a systematic approach used to understand students’ learning so that our institution can evaluate and enhance its learning contexts. Evidence related to students’ learning allows us to leverage and celebrate our institution’s strengths and informs decisions to change or refine elements related to students’ learning experiences. Second, we use evidence related to students’ learning to articulate to others (i.e., students, parents, employers, funding and accreditation entities) the rationale, expectations, and quality related to Northwestern’s educational opportunities.

The following principles guide the purposes and processes related to the assessment of students’ learning at Northwestern:

  • The primary purpose of assessment is the systematic understanding and improvement of students’ learning.
  • Assessment first requires that schools/colleges, divisions, programs, and courses develop, communicate, and align learning objectives.
  • Assessment also requires an ongoing process of identifying questions related to students’ learning and identifying appropriate methods to collect evidence of learning, collecting and evaluating evidence, and using the evidence to inform decisions about students’ learning.
  • Instructors, programs, schools/colleges, and divisions have a responsibility to assess students’ learning and use evidence to inform interventions in ways that are meaningful to their specific contexts.

Assessment and Accreditation Council

Convened in the fall of 2008 by the Provost, Northwestern’s Assessment and Accreditation Council advises the institution on matters related to the assessment of students’ learning and Northwestern’s reaffirmation of accreditation through the Higher Learning Commission. The Council is comprised of faculty members and administrators from across Northwestern’s twelve schools, representatives from the Division of Student Affairs, and staff from other key units.

Northwestern’s Assessment Priorities

The assessment of students’ learning at Northwestern is a school- and division-based effort strongly supported across the University by the senior administration. In articulating an institutional strategy for the assessment of students’ learning, current priorities respect that assessment will be performed across the University’s academic and co-curricular areas. As such, the strategy reflects different assessment-related priorities and infrastructure.

Building on past successes and operationalizing Northwestern’s commitment to enhancing students’ learning, the institution’s Assessment and Accreditation Council has articulated three priorities related to the assessment of students’ learning that will guide the institution’s efforts through its next comprehensive evaluation for reaffirmation of accreditation in 2024–25.

Key assessment-related goals for NU. Based on NU's strategic framework, our institutional commitment to deepening students' learning, and Higher Learning Commission (HLC) finding, NU should: First Establish and assess learning objectives at all levels, second use assessment findings to inform change, thirdly connect assessment-related findings (across curricula, divisions, processes). First and second are listed as 2019-20 (year 5) through 2022-23 (year 8). Third item is listed as 2023-24 (year 9) and 2024-25 (year 10). Note: year 5 through year 10 equal NU's timeline related to the 10-year cycle for reaffirmation of accreditation through HLC.

These three priorities are sequential; building capacity to execute this work must happen in earlier stages in order to observe impact in the other areas. To focus institution-wide efforts, the Assessment and Accreditation Council emphasizes assessment efforts across broader units at the institution, such as majors, minors, certificates, graduate and professional degrees, and co-curricular programs. The potential for broad impact with this approach is vast.

  1. First, systematized program-level assessment provides evidence that stands to inform decisions about entire academic and co-curricular programs and smaller-scale offerings within these (e.g., courses and smaller-scale programming). This is so because aligning broader (e.g., program-level) learning objectives clarifies which aspects of programs support various types and levels of students’ learning. Assessment findings can therefore inform decisions about courses and other learning opportunities to create, refine, or eliminate.
  2. Second, program-level assessment provides important evidence about the extent that learning is unfolding in a program as expected by illuminating where in programs learning objectives are introduced, reinforced, and mastered. Mapping curricula and co-curricular opportunities allows programs to identify specific opportunities where they can collect evidence of students’ learning at key milestones, such as a program’s outset, middle, or conclusion.

Contact Us

Contact us to learn more about implementing assessment in your courses or programs.

Lina Rombalsky Eskew
Assistant Director of Equitable Assessment
Searle Center for Advancing Learning and Teaching