Using Course Grades to Assess the Student Experience (Mathematics)

While course grades are not fine-tuned enough to give information about student achievement on specific learning outcomes, they can nonetheless provide a rough indication of some aspects of curricular effectiveness, which programs can use – often in combination with other measures – to guide decision-making.

Course grades are often considered the “indicator” type of indirect assessment measure, and may provide programs with information that can uncover student course-taking patterns and give information about student progress through the curriculum, or identify new areas for investigation of a program’s effectiveness. For example, a high D/F/W rate in a core course may indicate a need to re-evaluate the curriculum (or a particular option/track) and how students are prepared for the course. A program could also use course grades to generally indicate where students may need more support in the curriculum.

The WSU Department of Mathematics and Statistics, in collaboration with ATL, has examined the distribution of final course grades in classes focused on specific core content areas for five cohorts of graduating seniors, with the goal of understanding patterns, strengths, and weaknesses. The department’s undergraduate curriculum committee explored these results and was able to compare patterns in course grades across the five different options of the degree, as well as compare course grades in upper division courses for transfer students alongside students that completed lower-division math courses at WSU.

According to Sandy Cooper, Associate Professor in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, “By analyzing the course grade data for the graduating cohorts, we were able to debunk a couple of myths (commonly held beliefs) we had regarding students in our different options and their success in particular content areas of mathematics. The Undergraduate Curriculum Committee shared the results with the departmental faculty so that these myths no longer affect policy and teaching decisions in our department.”

Undergraduate program assessment in the Department of Mathematics and Statistics also includes evaluating student work using a program rubric (a direct measure of students’ performances or work products that demonstrate students’ specific skills and knowledge) and a senior exit survey (an indirect measure that provides information associated with student learning, motivation, perceived success, or satisfaction). It is important to remember that course grades typically sum the evaluations of multiple learning outcomes and often include other elements (participation, timeliness, absences, etc.). Consequently, while course grades alone are typically insufficient to assess specific student learning outcomes, they can serve as a useful indicator in identifying trends and areas for attention.

For more information about using course grades as an indirect measure in program-level assessment, please contact one of ATL’s Assessment Specialists.