Student Learning Outcomes

Student learning outcomes (SLOs) are the foundation of curriculum development and student learning assessment. Outcomes serve to convert lofty learning goals into measurable statements of what students will be able to demonstrate or do by the time they complete that academic program. Because they focus on the destination – expected student learning, outcomes serve as a “north star” guiding the creation of curriculum that leads to those outcomes and the selection of assessment measures to evaluate if the outcomes have been achieved. Outcomes are aligned to, and derived from, a program’s goals for teaching and learning and they then inform decisions about curriculum content and sequences, course design, pedagogical strategies, assignments and assessments. In short, student learning outcomes help faculty and programs explain what they do and why they do it.

  • Student Learning Outcome Characteristics

    Student Learning Outcomes are statements of what faculty expect students to be able to do when they have completed a program of study. Good learning outcomes reflect thoughtful collaboration and iterative efforts by faculty to identify and articulate the deep themes, connections, skills, and ways of knowing that weave throughout the different content areas within a given discipline. They intentionally focus on the areas of knowledge, skills, and habits of mind that students can reasonably be expected to demonstrate and that will prepare students for post-graduate success.

    Importantly, outcomes are not statements of what teachers intend to teach or statements of the learning activities that will happen. They are not lists of the content areas that collectively comprise an academic discipline. Rather, learning outcomes:

    • focus on the student
    • are aligned upwardly to institution and program mission and goals and downward to course learning outcomes
    • are clear and explicit
    • use observable, measurable action words that can be evaluated against established criteria
    • are rigorous but realistic and developmentally appropriate for students at this stage of their learning journey
    • focus on ideas, skills, and attitudes that are worthy of enduring understanding
  • 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 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.
    • 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.
    • There are structural patterns that can be used to help write outcomes statements.  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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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.
    • 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, 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.
  • A Word About Jargon

    There is considerable variation, and therefore resulting confusion, in the use of vocabulary associated with describing what students are supposed to learn in an academic program. This is particularly true for the terms goalsobjectives, and outcomes. Rather than worry about the “right” definition, it’s more important that there is  consistent use of the terms within an institution. Here’s how the terms are used here:

    • Goals refer to the hopes and dreams that faculty have for student learning in their program and their courses. Goals are teacher-oriented, what the teacher hopes to accomplish.
    • Outcomes, in contrast, are student-focused. They articulate what students will be able to do when they complete the program of study.
  • Start a Conversation

    The CAT offers customized programs to support academic programs as they develop or revise student learning outcomes. Please reach out to Anita McCauley to start a conversation about how the CAT can support you in this work.