Using Watermark to Help Faculty Close the Loop on Assessment

November 26, 2019 Watermark Insights

Colleges and universities, more than ever before in the history of the academy, need to know if students are learning what the faculty have intended them to learn. With increased competition between institutions to keep enrollment high, as well as the expectation that graduates are work-ready, the accountability movement is stronger than ever (National Institute for Learning Outcomes, 2016). 

Where Does Assessment Fit In?

The purpose of outcomes assessment is to do just that – provide faculty the tools they need to decipher student learning. When done correctly (and regularly), faculty can gain actionable insights about their student’s learning from indicators that may suggest changes to help increase overall effectiveness. While some faculty around the country may not take a genuine interest in improving teaching and learning, it has become increasingly evident that our institutions need a more proactive role in providing faculty the opportunities to be professionally self-reflective.



The Assessment Learning Cycle above has long been accepted as a standard within the academy. It’s important to note that the assessment process is uniform – identical – across all programs (Banta, 2002; Suskie, 2004). The key here is that faculty must articulate the best possible program-level outcomes and take steps to measure those. The entire process is an opportunity for faculty to be “professionally self-reflective.” This blog post will focus on step four of this process – “Redesign program to improve learning.”

The objective of outcomes assessment is continuous improvement based on student performance observations and data collection. The purpose of evidence-based adjustments to curriculum is to positively impact student success through improvement. 

Campus Culture and Outcomes Assessment

For as much as we’ve been discussing and debating about outcomes assessment in higher education since the 1980s, we still have quite a distance to go to be able to show how it’s universally addressed at colleges and universities around the country. Faculty at many institutions still view the process as extra work that is often done in angst and with little thought toward genuine continuous improvement. We use the analogy of a bus – all of the seats in the bus have been reserved for select passengers – “standby” institutional functions, such as syllabi construction, course assignment development, grade submission, financial aid distribution, and student registration, to name but a few. However, due to the relative newness of outcomes assessment, it has yet to acquire a seat on the bus. That function has been hanging on the back bumper of the bus with rollerblades. Part of the reason for this is the culture of higher education has yet to incorporate effective practices as a featured and automatic function within the academy. There is a need to create a seat on the bus for outcomes assessment. How can we begin to re-engineer the culture of our campuses to best accommodate outcomes assessment?

The initial element that needs adjustment is the cultural climate on campus toward assessment and the identification of what needs to be changed/adjusted based on assessment data. Faculty need to be provided a safe and open environment to discuss what may need to be adjusted in their curriculum or pedagogy. Faculty must (1) see that their assessment efforts are fruitful and that students benefit from them and (2) know that their administration won’t sanction them due to missed targets in assessment. For this to come to pass, the sentiment and attitude toward continuous improvement among the faculty and administration must be addressed. This is where the cultural shift needs to take place – our institutions will do well to become more transparent and imbued with a fresh sense of continuous improvement, as well as “appreciative inquiry” (Cooperrider and Srivastva, 1987).

Using Watermark to Enhance Institutional Transparency, Continuous Improvement & Appreciative Inquiry

A purpose-built assessment management system like Watermark Planning & Self-Study makes the assessment process more logical and manageable, while also promoting transparency, continuous improvement, and appreciative inquiry.

Institutional Transparency

Documenting action planning and demonstrating the impacting progress provides transparency and accountability to the assessment planning process. Planning & Self-Study provides a place for faculty and staff to document those intentions and assessment plans. Contributors can even view and collaborate on planning together.


Workspace for contributors to the 2020-2021 assessment plan and report for the Elementary Education (BA) program to collaboratively reflect on outcome performance (e.g., for the Encourage Critical Thinking outcome) and add and track actions spurred by the findings.


Furthermore, the engaging and intuitive interface makes work easier and fosters collaborative reflections and conversations to further inspire action.


An example of how Planning & Self-Study promotes contributor discussions and reviews with the “Comments” section.


Once inside the Organization Management area of Planning & Self-Study, you can further define your focus for program-level assessment. In this area, program leads can collaboratively define their intentions through the mission statement and the outcomes they strive to meet. Doing so creates transparency across the board because all collaborators and faculty involved can clearly see the program details and outcomes.



Continuous Improvement

Continuous improvement is embedded in the assessment process because faculty plan and implement change when necessary, gather feedback following the change, and continue to make further adjustments if needed to ensure student mastery of the assigned program learning outcomes (Aggarwal & Lynn, 2012). Through transparency and continuous improvement, ideally, a cultural shift can occur and take assessment even further. Planning & Self-Study has been designed to be a simple, yet pragmatic, template to record data interpretation, as well as other qualitative observations towards the achievement of student mastery.

Once within your academic plan in Planning & Self-Study, you are able to see a list of your outcomes and determine where you need to close the loop. By clicking on an outcome, you can see and define which measures are being used to assess that outcome. You can then supply the results for a measure in four different ways:

  • Sending an email to faculty to collect scores
  • Upload assessment result files
  • Enter the count of students who met or did not meet the criteria
  • Align results from another system



These options provide a way to connect to the workflows you’re accustomed to and source data from where it currently exists. Whether that is with faculty, a Learning Management System (LMS) such as Blackboard, Canvas, or D2L, or another Watermark solution such as Student Learning & LicensureOutcomes Assessment Projects, or Course Evaluations & Surveys.

Appreciative Inquiry

Teams and organizations use appreciative inquiry to help move their institutions toward a shared vision by engaging in strategic innovation to create direction and forward momentum. A culture that embraces appreciative inquiry entails regularly defining what the focus will be in the assessment process, discovering what has worked, dreaming of past achievements and successes, designing the change, and delivering the change (Lehner & Ruona, 2004).

The screen capture below is another example of how Planning & Self-Study’s intuitive layouts help faculty to easily reflect on the results of their assessment. The “Findings” and “Actions & Past Results” areas are ideal for recording the implications of the assessment at both the course and program level.



Once you align results to a measure, you can note your observations and findings as you reflect on a helpful graphical summary of those results. You can also refer back to results for this measure from previous assessment cycles and a running list of identified actions as you develop your analysis and determine whether to suggest additional actions.

The Qualitative Part of the Assessment Process

As a part of efforts to adjust campus culture to help faculty embrace continuous improvement of their academic programs, an informal campaign was launched at a small, private, teaching university in the Midwest. Faculty were asked to reflect on their programs on a purely qualitative level. Full-time, as well as adjuncts, were asked to prepare brief statements that addressed (1) what worked well in their courses, (2) what didn’t work as well, and (3) what changes they would make to those courses if they taught them again in the future. The design here was simple and straightforward – encourage all faculty to reflect on the programs within which they teach and begin to establish a more holistic perspective of what the program of study is intended to do.

Faculty were reminded that the data collected in assessment courses is only a part of what they should consider in specifying changes to instruction and other educational experiences. As a general rule, faculty do well to consider their observations, effective communication given the modality (seated, hybrid, or online), and how students are putting it all together (going up Bloom’s Taxonomy). A uniquely qualitative approach actually encouraged faculty to take a good, critical look at their programs – does the design of the program enhance student learning so they will be proficient at the baccalaureate or graduate level? How does the program unfold for students on the whole? Are course sequences logical? Are knowledge and skill development properly “ramped up” so that students will come out of the program able to display the mastery of knowledge, skills, and abilities necessary to be work-ready? Faculty were also encouraged to take a “deeper dive” into the assessment process, looking at how students are performing at the course level from introducing to the display of mastery of program learning outcomes. In the event students were not performing at the preferred level, faculty were encouraged to collaborate with colleagues in order to make adjustments in the curriculum. Emphasis was also placed on the significance of the continual assessment cycle, always assessing both internal and external components to the university to ensure that students are prepared effectively upon graduation. Well vetted and developed academic programs are much like living organisms. They walk students through information and experiences that ultimately qualify them as being appropriately educated at the baccalaureate, or graduate, level.


This blog contribution considered the current state of outcomes assessment in American higher education. Regional commissions on colleges and universities are keenly focused on faculty actively and regularly “closing the loop” on outcomes assessment. Due to the history of higher education, as well as the culture of our campuses, faculty have been reticent to make transparent the apparent changes needed to update and improve their programs. We would do well to address this campus culture and encourage faculty to be openly professionally self-reflective. Watermark’s assessment and accreditation solutions are uniquely designed to capture these important faculty reflections on assessment data, as well as qualitative observations of their academic programs. To learn more, request a personalized demo.


Aggarwal, A. K., & Lynn, S. A. (2012). Using continuous improvement to enhance an online course. Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, 10(1), 25-48. doi:10.1111/j.1540-4609.2011.0033x

Banta, Trudy W. & Associates. 2002. Building a Scholarship of Assessment. Jossey-Bass. San Francisco.

Cooperrider, D.L. & Srivastva, S. 1987. “Appreciative Inquiry in Organizational Life.” In Woodman, R.W. & Pasmore, W.A. Research in Organizational Change and Development. Vol 1. Stamford, CT. JAI Press. Pp. 129-169.

Lehner, R., & Ruona, W. (2004, March). Using appreciative inquiry to build and enhance a learning culture. Paper presented at the Academy of Human Resource Development International Conference ‘04. Austin, TX.

National Institute for Learning Outcomes, A. (2016). Higher education quality: Why documenting learning matters. A Policy Statement from the National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment. Retrieved from

Suskie, Linda. 2004. Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide. Anker Publishing Company. Bolton, Massachusetts.

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