Getting Started

Writing student learning outcome statements can feel like a daunting task since they play a central role in driving subsequent teaching and learning decisions in a program. Translating ambitious, aspirational goals into clear and measurable statements of student learning requires reflection and revision, creativity and collaboration. Due to the enormity of the task, programs can go astray by rushing the writing – resulting in  outcome statements that do not adequately reflect the program and hamstring future efforts, or by endless wordsmithing – causing overall assessment and learning improvement efforts to stall. 

Suggestions for Success

Based upon our experiences helping programs develop and revise student learning outcomes, here are some suggestions to make writing learning outcomes statements more successful. 

Identify Themes: Identify themes from program learning goals and ideal graduate dreaming exercises and align the writing of outcomes around those themes. It may be a one to one relationship between a theme and an outcome or it may be that themes merge or are disaggregated into multiple outcomes.

Identify Connections: Rather than focusing on the sub-disciplines or content areas that collectively comprise an academic discipline, seek to identify the connections that exist between those areas and the ways in which those areas share common ways of knowing and patterns of thinking or problem-solving. This can be challenging for programs used to thinking about courses and research domains and hiring decisions based upon faculty members specializations. However, pulling back to see what is held in common is essential.

Utilize Structural Patterns: There are structural patterns that can be used to help write outcomes statements. Two examples are included in the image below. Be sure to include a phrase like, “students will be able to”, an action verb, an object of the verb, and any relevant conditions or criteria.

Utilize Categories and Levels of Learning: Use categories and levels of learning to guide your writing. Categories of learning might include knowledge and conceptual understanding, cognitive skills, practical or procedural skills, and attitudes and habits of mind. For each of these categories, taxonomies that identify levels of progression have been developed. Determine the level of learning that is developmentally appropriate for students completing your program and use action verbs that reflect that category and level. Examples of categories and their taxonomies include cognitive skills and Bloom’s taxonomy and attitudes and habits of mind and Krawthal’s taxonomy. Verb lists based upon these taxonomies are available.

Expand Your Brainstorming: Use segmented brainstorming types of activities that encourage everyone to contribute ideas; that prioritize coming up with many ideas rather than one “perfect” idea; and that allow documentation of ideas to enable later iteration and revision.

Finding the “Goldilocks” Balance

When writing learning outcomes, it can be difficult to find the “goldilocks” balance between being too broad and too specific. Being too specific often results in missing connections across the curriculum. But when outcomes are too broad, faculty can feel uncomfortable or worry that specific disciplinary details will be lost.

At this point, it can be helpful to consider articulating indicators or “sub-outcomes” that help specify and operationalize each outcome statement within the discipline and serve to target assessment measures and learning experiences.

The Value of Articulating Indicators

To illustrate the need for, and value of articulating indicators or sub-outcomes, consider the following program-level student learning outcome statement:

“Students will be able to communicate effectively in a variety of contexts.”

This outcome statement meets the criteria for a good statement – it’s student focused, has a measurable action verb, and includes conditions. It is broad enough to be relevant across specializations. However, in order to operationalize this outcome in course and assignment design for a specific academic program, more specificity would be helpful. 

When sub-outcomes are articulated, then it becomes easier to determine the types of assessment measures, assignments, and learning experiences that will help students achieve that outcome. This is illustrated in the table below showing how three different academic programs operationalize the same learning outcome statement: “Students will be able to communicate effectively in a variety of contexts.” 

Program 1 Sub-OutcomesProgram 2 Sub-OutcomesProgram 3 Sub-Outcomes
Clearly and concisely communicate a project specification, design, and implementation using a commonly-understood abstract language when appropriate.Clearly and concisely describe research questions, methods, results, and conclusions using properly analyzed and formatted figures. Design a marketing campaign within client specifications that effectively reaches the target audience. 
Engage with a stakeholder to iteratively develop design requirements to meet needs while satisfying all constraints. Give a clear, well-focused oral presentation properly targeted to its audienceConcisely communicate the key ideas and urgency of action in an executive summary format.