Structure of Assessment of Student Learning Process at Pitt

In November 2006, the Council of Deans formalized expectations for assessment by developing the Guidelines for Documenting the Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes at the University of Pittsburgh. These guidelines were purposefully designed to ensure that the process is useful, meaningful, and respectful of faculty time.


The guidelines require that student learning outcomes be assessed for all certificate and degree-granting programs and for the general education curricula offered at the University of Pittsburgh. Specifically, each program is required to articulate three to five learning outcomes tied to its mission and specific goals for each outcome. These learning outcomes must be assessed at least once every three to five years. These assessments must include some direct evidence of student learning and a feedback mechanism through which the assessments of student learning outcomes are used to improve the academic programs.

The guidelines also provide guidance on the types of direct evidence that can be used. For example, course grades are often not useful because they reflect the assessment of many different aspects of the course and cannot be mapped to specific student learning outcomes. Similarly, external validation (in the form of a team of faculty members) is necessary if class projects are being used in the assessment process.

To keep the process manageable, programs are encouraged to assess the work of a sample of students rather than every student; to design a time table suitable to their faculty, noting that each learning outcome does not need to be assessed every year as long as each is assessed at least once every three to five years; and to take advantage of existing assessment opportunities such as course exams, capstone projects, and licensure exams rather than creating entirely new processes. Finally, it was noted that learning outcomes, measures, and standards should evolve over time if they are to remain useful and relevant to the individual schools and programs.


The University believes that discussions of goals for student learning are best conducted by the individual program faculties. Consistent with this philosophy, the University takes a decentralized approach to the assessment of student learning. The faculties offering the specific degree and certificate programs are responsible for developing expected learning outcomes for their programs and for establishing standards and goals for their students (often in consultation with industry experts or graduate schools). Because they are in the best position to judge whether or not students have developed the necessary skills and knowledge, program faculties also are responsible for assessing whether or not students are meeting the goals and, if they are not, for modifying the curriculum in order to better achieve the goals.

School and campus faculties also have broad responsibility for structuring the curriculum so that students develop breadth and depth of knowledge as well as an array of skills, typically through the general education curricula. Thus, responsibility for assessing student learning of these general skills rests with the school or campus and is typically overseen by that school or campus’ curriculum committee.


Individual deans and campus presidents are responsible for monitoring and documenting assessment processes within their units. The Office of the Provost, through the vice provost for undergraduate studies, retains final oversight for this entire process and, as such, serves the function of assessment coordinator at the University. In this capacity, the vice provost monitors the institutional assessment process through a review of annual assessment reports from the schools and regional campuses, provides feedback to deans and campus presidents on the assessment processes, and supports improvements to the assessment activities. The vice provost for graduate studies provides support for monitoring the assessment processes of graduate programs.

Reporting requirements for assessment of student learning are purposefully minimal to allow units to focus their attention on the assessments and related curricular improvements rather than reporting. Discipline in reporting is enforced by the requirement that programs report in a standardized matrix format based on the assessment matrix developed at the University of Virginia.

Reporting by Programs with Specialized Accreditation

Programs may substitute a professional accreditation process by showing how that professional accreditation process maps onto the guidelines. Currently, four schools comply with the University’s requirements for assessment of student learning outcomes by satisfying the standards and reporting requirements of their professional accrediting agencies (the year of their most recent accreditation renewal is noted in parentheses): Joseph M. Katz Graduate School of Business and College of Business Administration (2008), School of Dental Medicine (2010), Swanson School of Engineering (2011), and School of Nursing (2009).

The Working Group on Using Assessment to Improve the Student Experience (WGSE) confirmed that the requirements of the specialized accreditors for these programs map fully onto the University of Pittsburgh’s requirements set forth in the Council of Deans’ guidelines. These schools routinely submit copies of their accreditation reports to the Office of the Provost to demonstrate their compliance with student learning assessment standards. They have extensive assessment requirements that include learning goals, outcomes, direct and indirect measures of student learning, and the use of these results for continuous improvement.