Assessment in Action: Student Learning in Introductory Psychology

by Sarah Gray

“We have our lowest withdrawal rates this semester by far, than we’ve ever had! They aren’t getting better grades because it’s an easier course, it’s actually a more rigorous course, and through this process, I now realize that this is part of my job.” - Dr. Brooke Whisenhunt


Psychology faculty members Dr. Brooke Whisenhunt and Dr. Danae Hudson are no strangers to the world of assessment. These two, in collaboration with many other faculty members in the Psychology Department, took their assessment experience and put it to good use by implementing a redesign of PSY 121, Introductory Psychology. The redesign occurred when they were part of a “statewide mission in course redesign that started in the fall of 2010 where the governor put in money to an initiative where each university put in one course to redesign, working in conjunction with the National Center for Academic Transformation (NCAT).”

Redesign Process

The process of redesigning a course can seem daunting to anyone, but these two took the challenge head on and created a systematic way of getting the process started. “We then began a pretty formalized type of process where we spent two semesters completely redesigning the course and working with NCAT and their framework. This process incorporated assessment, that we had previously been doing, which is why we knew we needed to redesign it,” Dr. Hudson explained. “Because it’s a general education course we’ve always given a 30 item comprehensive exam at the beginning and end of the semester, so we have a lot of baseline data to show that over the course of the semester students we’re improving on that exam by only about three questions. We weren't too happy with that and felt like PSY 121 was a good candidate [for redesign] for that reason.” The other piece of important data on deciding why we needed to redesign PSY 121 was our Drop/Fail/Withdrawal rate. In these sections, traditionally 24%-25% of PSY 121 students were getting D’s or F’s,” Dr. Whisenhunt added.

Gaining a New Understanding

Through this process of course redesign and assessment, Dr. Whisenhunt and Dr. Hudson, both feel that they have gained a better understanding of student learning in many ways.“I think before this assessment, if someone would have asked me, ‘well what concepts do your students struggle with the most?’ I would have come up with something opinion-based, but now I actually know! I know what concepts they are going to have difficulty with and what section and what chapter. It’s really given me a better understanding of what's hard for them. When you’ve taught for a really long time, it is hard to remember how we learn this stuff for the first time so it’s nice,” Dr. Whisenhunt stated with a smile on her face.

Due to findings from their assessment efforts, the Psychology Department successfully implemented a pilot section taught by Dr. Whisenhunt in the spring of 2012. Full implementation with 1,340 students began in fall of 2013, and this spring is their 4th full semester of the redesign.


  • Pre-Post Test
  • Reviewed data from MyPsychLab by Pearson assignments
  • Took in class assessments with clickers
  • Reviewed Drop/Fail/Withdrawal rates of PSY 121
  • Informal faculty conversations in the department

Keys to Success

  • Work as a team
  • Find a mentor
  • Allow for plenty of time
  • Use a pilot class for exploration
  • Have a clear idea of what your data collection will look like
  • Continue previous forms of assessments such as a pre-post test
  • Find external funding and support

Return to Use of Student Learning page—Assessment in Action