Purpose - This paper is the first part of a comprehensive report about a research study that aims to assess the relationship between the university experience and student outcomes as a means of determining a university's success in meeting its educational goals. Design/methodology/approach - It focuses on the research methodology deployed. Underlying the methodology are four research questions that determine the empirical design, the process, the selection, and the adaptation of an appropriate measurement instrument. Findings - While this paper, the first part of a research report, focuses primarily on the research methodology, the second part (to be published as a separate paper) will report on the findings, discussions and implications for assessing universities based on student experiences and learning outcomes. Research limitations/implications - This paper will interrogate the various methods of analysis and identify the limitations that are inherent in the overall design. Practical implications - An alternative approach to quality assessment in higher education is suggested to encourage institutions to be more oriented towards student learning and the development of comprehensive databases for better institutional planning and decision making. Originality/value - It sheds light on an instrument that aims to understand the students' experience in all aspects during their undergraduate years; and to identify how much of the growth and development can be attributed to the quality university experience that the institution provides for its students.