Learning Outcomes Assessment Handbook

A Guide to Assessing Academic Programs at Penn State


This site serves as a general guide to the Learning Outcomes Assessment (LOA) process at Penn State. If you are new to learning outcomes assessment or would like to walk through the process from start to finish, you may find it easiest to navigate through this information using the navigation buttons at the bottom of each page. Alternatively, if you would like to go directly to information on a specific component of the process, such as writing learning objectives, you might prefer to navigate directly to that page using the links provided in the left-hand sidebar. Because the handbook was written so that any page or section provides complete information, much of the information is repeated in multiple places. The handbook can also be accessed as a downloadable PDF by clicking on “Handbook: Full Version” in the left-hand sidebar.

As always, if you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to contact your LOA liaison.

What Is Learning Outcomes Assessment?

Learning Outcomes Assessment describes an assessment process with a specific focus on student learning and outcomes in educational contexts. In Assessing Student Learning (2009), Linda Suskie, a well-regarded leader in the field of assessment, defines learning outcomes assessment as follows:


“Establishing clear, measurable expected outcomes of student learning; Ensuring that students have sufficient opportunities to achieve those outcomes; Systematically gathering, analyzing, and interpreting evidence to determine how well student learning matches our expectations; using resulting information to understand and improve student learning.”

Linda Suskie

At Penn State, the learning outcomes assessment process focuses on determining the extent to which students are meeting expectations in undergraduate, graduate, and certificate programs across the institution. This process also provides faculty with an opportunity to collaboratively determine the knowledge and skills that graduates should be able to demonstrate, and then collect evidence of the extent to which students are meeting those learning expectations.

Why Assess?


Student Learning

The primary reason to engage in assessment activities is because they help maintain the quality of the academic programs we offer our students.  Learning outcomes assessment can reveal a range of insights about an academic program, including gaps or redundancies in the curriculum, curricular shifts, course sequencing issues, inappropriate performance expectations, misalignment between objectives and curriculum, positive or negative student outcomes, and much more.


One significant reason to assess learning outcomes relates to Penn State’s ongoing accreditation by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education (MSCHE). Among other things, Middle States requires universities to demonstrate how they engage in continual student learning assessment at the program level.

What is a Program?

As a rule of thumb, programs should have a codified set of Program Learning Objectives (PLOs), that is distinct from other sets of PLOs. For example, the objectives of the Animal Biology program should be distinct from those of Plant Biology, even though the two may share similar and overlapping objectives.

Federal regulations describe a program as “a postsecondary educational program offered by an institution of higher learning that leads to an academic or professional degree, certificate, or other recognized educational credit.” (34 CFR 602.3)

IPEDS (Integrated Postsecondary Educational Data System) defines an “academic program” as an instructional program leading toward an associate’s, bachelor’s, master’s, or doctor’s degree or resulting credits that can apply to one of these degrees.