Common Searches

Establishing Benchmarks and Targets

Benchmarks and targets are predefined standards to objectively measure the quality of learning outcomes.  Benchmarks are essential to continuous quality improvement and help to overcome complacency and  establish what level of performance for a program outcome is acceptable for a program graduate. Targets set a percent of students that should be achieving these benchmarks for the program to consider itself a success in completing the program learning outcomes. In short, both measure student success: benchmarks allow us to judge student success while the target allows us to judge the program’s success.

Setting Useable Benchmarks

Departments and faculty should establish benchmarks for both direct and indirect methods of assessment, as well as targets that reflect what students should know and what skills they should have as they graduate from the degree program. Benchmarks are necessary for assessment data to be meaningful. The benchmark should be whatever column on your department’s rubrics is defined as the “minimally acceptable” level of performance from students. For example, if a PLO is measured with a rubric using a scale of 1-10, is the minimal competency expected of a graduating senior going to be a 7 or 8? Or something else?

To set usable benchmarks, Suskie (2018, p. 297) suggests that programs: 

  1. Ask what would not embarrass you? 
  2. Ask how will the assessment data be used (and by what audiences)? 
  3. Ask what are the relative risks of setting the bar too high or too low? 
  4. When in doubt, set the standard relatively high rather than relatively low 
  5. If you can, use external sources to help set standards (disciplinary organizations, professional licensing requirements, etc.) 
  6. Consider the assignment being assessed 
  7. Consider a sample of student work and past experience

These questions can assist departments and faculty to come up with benchmarks that fit their programs. Like outcomes, benchmarks can also be revisited as industry and fields of study change with advances in technology, research, and other markers of development. Revisiting these questions and considerations can also be tied to other established routines, such as five-year review, PLO review, and other such reviews within departments.

Program Targets

As stated above, programs identify what percent of students should be achieving at a minimum to be considered a successful student in terms of completing the Program Learning Outcomes (PLOs). Suskie (2018) recommends that faculty establish two levels of outcomes: essential and aspirational. Essential outcomes are fundamental: all students should achieve this minimum standard before graduation. Conversely, aspirational outcomes are not a barrier to success, but rather are outcomes that students can still achieve goals to be a successful graduate, but are secondary to fundamental goals. Essentially, aspirational outcomes are ideal.

Fundamental outcomes have a target of 100% of students achieving the desired program outcomes. Aspirational should have a target above 50%. Programs benefit from establishing an exemplary target that establishes a percent of students a program would like to see achieving the highest standard (Suskie, 2018, 300-2).

Example Program Targets

Minimum Target

Exemplary Target

Fundamental Outcomes



Aspirational Outcomes



For examples of targets, please refer to other universities’ examples listed in the References and Resources section.