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Align course exams and assignments with course student learning outcomes

October 21, 2014

Skilled teachers identify clear goals (student learning outcomes) for their course, identify and develop learning activities that create opportunities for students to practice and develop skill on these outcomes, and create assessments that are sensitive to the articulated goals (Blumberg, 2009, 2014; Fink, 2003).

An earlier tip discussed the importance of aligning learning activities with learning outcomes when planning a course. The second component of an aligned course is the alignment of assessments with the course student learning outcomes.

If learning outcomes include higher-level skills such as analysis, use of evidence, and application of concepts to problems, students should use these skills when they complete a course assessment. These skills can be assessed through case studies, responses to open-ended questions, or projects or problem sets.

Can objective tests assess higher level learning outcomes? 

Unfortunately, multiple choice questions that depend only on fact retrieval dominate most textbook test banks. However, some test banks include conceptual questions that tap higher level skills. Instructors can write their own questions or edit test bank questions to create questions that require students to evaluate evidence, apply a model and make a prediction about an outcome, or evaluate alternative solutions to a real-world problem. Be prepared: Writing a good multiple choice question to evaluate a higher-level learning outcome takes time. These questions are frequently longer than fact-based questions. However, a test need not be dominated by higher-level questions. Instructors might still want to evaluate whether students mastered basic fact-level content. See the CUTLA Elluminate webinar on how to write multiple choice exam questions at different levels of Bloom’s taxonomy, posted on both the CUTLA and the ATC web pages.

Advice for constructing an objective exam to assess multiple student learning outcomes

Most course exams include questions to evaluate student learning on multiple learning outcomes. The complexity of course exams is one reason that grades on an exam do not work well as program-level assessments of student learning. However, a carefully constructed exam can produce meaningful assessment evidence for multiple learning outcomes.

Begin by identifying the learning outcomes assessed by the exam in a test blueprint. For each learning outcome, select one or more objective questions that assess that learning outcome. For example, a 50-item class exam might include 5 questions aligned with each of 10 different learning outcomes. Some outcomes might be low-level Bloom outcomes (recognition or retrieval of content) whereas other outcomes might represent higher-level skills (predict the outcome of an experiment based on a specific explanatory model by selecting among several plausible outcomes, apply disciplinary criteria to select a correct solution to a complex problem described in a case).

Students learn best when courses are aligned and when instructors clearly explain the relation between intended learning outcomes and the learning activities they include in the course.


Blumberg, P. (2009). Maximizing learning through course alignment and using different types of knowledge. Innovative Higher Education, 34, 93-103.

Blumberg, P. (2014). Assessing and improving your teaching: Strategies and rubrics for faculty growth and student learning. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

CUTLA web site: Writing Higher Order Multiple Choice Questions, Elluminate Session (2/28/2013). Recording of an Elluminate workshop that discussed how to write multiple choice questions at higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. Located in the 
            Bloom’s Taxonomy area on the Assessment Resources page.

CUTLA web site (nd).             Writing student learning outcomes for course syllabi.
Fink, L. D. (2003). Creating significant learning experiences. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.