Skip to Main Content
Skidmore College
Institutional Effectiveness and Assessment at Skidmore College

Direct vs. Indirect Assessment Methods

Direct assessment involves looking at actual samples of student work produced in our programs. These include capstone projects, senior theses, exhibits or performances (see below).

Indirect assessment is gathering information through means other than looking at actual samples of student work. These include surveys, exit interviews, and focus groups (see below).

Each serves a particular purpose.  Indirect measures can give us information quickly, but may not provide real evidence of student learning.  Students may think that they learned well or say that they did, but that does not mean that their perceptions are correct.

For example, when I first go to a doctor, I am handed a form to fill out with my name, address, insurance provider, and answers to various questions, such as:  Has anyone in my family ever had cancer?  Am I taking various medications, such as?  Am I allergic to anything?  Have I ever had a major operation, and if so, for what purpose? 

That's a survey, an indirect assessment.

It may also ask me why I am seeing the doctor and what my symptoms are?  That, too, is a survey, and my answers are my perceptions of my condition.  I may or may not be correct.  It is an indirect assessment of my health.

Then, I go in to the doctor, and he says to me, "How are you feeling?"  I always answer, "Fine."  I always answer "fine" regardless of how I'm feeling: I don't want to reveal anything too personal.  My wife tells me I'm stupid.  The doctor has just conducted an interview:  an indirect assessment.

He still doesn't know whether I'm healthy or not.

So then he listens to my heart, he thumps my knee (nothing), and he looks in my ears and eyes.  Then he has me leave a urine sample.  He has a nurse take some blood samples.  He orders up a colonoscopy.  Those are all direct assessments.

In short, his indirect assessments gave him some indications, but no evidcnce.  He had to actually look at or listen to physical evidence to have a direct assessment.

So it is with our assessment of the curriculum.  Students may have certain perceptions about what they've learned or not, but, until we look at the evidence -- actual samples of their work -- we really can't be sure.

Examples of Direct and Indirect Measures of Student Learning at the Course, Program, and Institutional Levels [1]

  • Course and homework assignments

  • Exams and quizzes

  • Standardized tests

  • Term papers and reports

  • Observations of field work, internship performance, service learning, clinical experiences

  • Research projects

  • Class discussion participation

  • Case study analysis

  • Rubric scores for writing, oral presentations, and performances

  • Artistic performances and products

  • Grades based on explicit criteria related to clear learning goals

  • Course evaluations

  • Test bluprints (outlines of the concepts and skills covered on tests)

  • Percent of class time spent in active learning

  • Number of student hours spent on service learning

  • Number of student hours spent on homework

  • Number of student hours spent at intellectual or cultural activities related to the course

  • Grades that are not based on explicit criteria related to clear learning goals

  • Capstone projects, senior theses, exhibits, or performances

  • Pass rates or scores on licensure, certification, or subject area tests

  • Student publications or conference presentations

  • Employer and internship supervisor ratings of students' performance

  • Focus group interviews with students, faculty members, or employees

  • Registration or course enrollment information

  • Department or program review data

  • Job placement

  • Employer or alumni surveys

  • Student perception surveys

  • Proportion of upper-level courses compared to the same program at other institutions

  • Graduate school placement rates

  • Performance on tests of writing, critical thinking, or general knowledge

  • Rubric scores for class assignments in General Education, interdisciplinary core courses, or other courses required of all students

  • Performance on achievement tests

  • Explicit self-reflections on what students have learned related to institutional programs such as service learning (e.g., asking students to name the three most important things they have learned in a program)

  • Locally developed, commercial, or national surveys of student perceptions or self-report of activities (e.g., National Survey of Student Engagement)

  • Transcript studies that examine patterns and trends of course selection and grading

  • Annual reports including institutional benchmarks (e.g., graduation and retention rates, grade point averages of graduates, etc.)

[1] Middle States Commission on Higher Education. Student Learning Assessment: Options and Resources. Chapter 3, Evaluating Student Learning: 27-53; 2007.