College of Arts & Sciences

Aligning Outcomes and Assessments

Assessment is an integral part of learning. Knowing what outcomes are expected helps students work effectively, whether creating a project or studying for an exam. It makes them share the responsibility for their own learning. In the words of engineering professor Warren Houghton,

"[W]e know that students will inevitably tend to look at the assessment and structure their learning activities, as far as they are able, to optimise their assessment performance. We must therefore make sure that the assessment very obviously does test the learning outcomes we want students to achieve, that, by being strategic optimisers of their assessment performance, students will actually be working to achieve the intended learning outcomes" (Warren, 2004).

In other words, to get the best performance from your students, your assessments must be aligned to your intended student learning outcomes.

STEP 1: Define Student Learning Outcomes

In order to do this, you must first have a clear idea of what you want students to know and be able to do at the end of a course or at the end of an entire program of study. See Defining Effective Student Learning Outcomes for Your Course for more information.

STEP 2: Align Instruction and Assessment to SLOs

Once you determine your desired ends (outcomes), you can determine what it will look like for students to demonstrate their knowledge and abilities (assessments). Then you can create the opportunities for learning, your instruction. This process was coined backward design by Wiggins and McTighe (2006) and is part of what is called constructive alignment (Biggs & Tang, 2007).

constructive alignment


In the words of John Biggs, "'Constructive alignment' starts with the notion that the learner constructs his or her own learning through relevant learning activities. The teacher's job is to create a learning environment that supports the learning activities appropriate to achieving the desired learning outcomes. The key is that all components in the teaching system - the curriculum and its intended outcomes, the teaching methods used, the assessment tasks - are aligned to each other...The learner finds it difficult to escape without learning appropriately" (Biggs, see link).

Say your intention is for students to be able to integrate the concepts covered in your course and to apply them to a real problem from the discipline (your Intended Learning Outcomes). If most of the class time is spent on explaining the concepts, and if your course exams assess knowledge by asking students to identify and/or describe these concepts, then the average student will adjust his/her study process to these knowledge-level learning outcomes only. However, if the in-class and homework activities and the exams require students to integrate and apply concepts, then the average student will adjust his/her learning process accordingly. And your Intended Learning Outcomes will be accomplished. It may take time for students to adjust, but be consistent with your approach.


Learning outcomes and assessments must align on two levels: the action verb and the content.

If the student learning outcome you intend is for students to be able to analyze and critique an article (or poem, film, symphony, etc.), then students should be asked to analyze and critique (not simply summarize) an article (or poem, film, symphony, etc.) in an assessment. The prior learning activities would be constructed to guide them through the process of analysis and critique through modeling and opportunities to practice in dialogues, discussions, and written assignments.

What if the learning outcome is to demonstrate knowledge, such as be able to explain how information is stored, accessed, and represented in computers? An appropriate assessment would ask a student to explain this concept, but it would not ask them to build a storage devise! Learning activities could include readings, class lectures and discussions.

The process of aligning outcomes and assessments is not easy to achieve, requiring modification as your own expectations go from intuitive to explicit and as you examine your students' work. You might find the following version of Bloom's Taxonomy helpful in the process, as it not only provides a list of verbs, it also provides products aligned to the verbs, as well as the teacher's and students' roles in learning.

Bloom's Taxonomy Roles and Products


Biggs, J. & Tang, C. (2007). Teaching for quality learning at university. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press/McGraw-Hill Education.

Houghton, Warren (2004) Engineering subject centre guide: Learning and teaching theory for engineering academics. Loughborough, UK: HEA Engineering Subject Centre. (online chapter at )

Wiggins, G. & McTighe, J. (2006). Understanding by design. Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.

Last modified August 19, 2013.