Direct and Indirect Measures

There are many ways to collect evidence of student learning. To simplify the options, somewhat, assessment efforts are categorized as direct and indirect measures. Direct measures are probably more familiar to teaching faculty. A direct measure is based on a sample of actual student work, including reports, exams, demonstrations, performances, and completed works. The strength of direct measurement is that faculty members are capturing a sample of what students can do, which can be very strong evidence of student learning. A possible weakness of direct measurement is that not everything can be demonstrated in a direct way, such as values, perceptions, feelings, and attitudes.

In contrast, an indirect measure is based upon a report of perceived student learning. The reports can come from many perspectives, including students, faculty, internship supervisors, transfer institutions, and employers. Indirect measures can provide additional information about what students are learning and how this learning is valued by different constituencies. However, as evidence of student learning, indirect measures are not as strong as direct measures because we have to make assumptions about what exactly the self-report means. For example, if students report that they have attained a particular learning goal, how do we know that their report is accurate? The strength of indirect measurement is that it can assess certain implicit qualities of student learning, such as values, feelings, perceptions, and attitudes, from a variety of perspectives. The weakness of this approach is that, in the absence of direct evidence, assumptions must be made about how well perceptions match the reality of actual achievement.

Because each method has its limitations, an ideal assessment program would combine direct and indirect measures from a variety of sources. This triangulation of assessment methods can provide converging evidence of student learning. Examples of direct and indirect assessment methods are given in the table below.

Table 6—Direct and Indirect Measures

Direct Measures Indirect Measures
  • Essay test question
  • Term paper
  • Oral presentation
  • Multiple-choice test question
  • Performance piece (e.g., musical recital)
  • Case analysis
  • Standardized test
  • Class project (individual or group)
  • Poster presentation
  • Classroom Assessment Techniques such as “muddiest point”
  • Survey of current students
  • Survey of faculty members
  • Survey of internship supervisors
  • Survey of graduates
  • Survey of employers
  • Survey of transfer institutions

Note that many of the examples in Table 6 are already incorporated into our classroom and program activities. Occasionally an assessment plan will lead to developing a new assignment or test, but generally it is advisable to use the data that are already being collected from students about their learning. Time constraints inside and outside of the classroom can be a real obstacle to assessment activities, so it is best to plan assessments that are time efficient. A faculty member may assign a term paper that is graded according to course and instructor goals. Using the term paper to measure a program goal may be as easy as adding a quick rating of each student’s use of reference materials in writing the paper. (This assumes that using reference materials is encompassed within a program goal.)