Developing Student Learning Outcomes

What are academic program level student learning outcomes?

Academic program level student learning outcomes (SLOs) are clear, concise, measurable statements that describe what a student should know and be able to do at the completion of their degree program.

Why are SLOs important?

SLOs can help students learn more effectively, as they clarify what students can expect from their chosen academic program and encourage them to be engaged and self-directed learners. SLOs can assist faculty members in designing courses and course-level SLOs that connect to the larger curriculum and programmatic design. It also makes the skills and knowledge of graduates clear to potential employers and other outside constituents.


How is academic program assessment different from course assessment?


Program vs. Course-Level Outcomes

Program level and course level outcomes assessment differ in both time span and specificity. In program level SLOs, the student is expected to learn across courses, and the knowledge translates up to the program level, while for course level outcomes the learning is focused primarily on one class. Additionally, program outcomes are not as granular or detailed as course level outcomes, thus should include more broad learning outcomes. 

Academic program level SLOs should identify central, key aspects of the program. They should emphasize the transfer of knowledge and skills across courses and shift from a course-centered approach to a program-centered approach to education. In doing so, program level SLOs should lead to a more cohesive curriculum and promote effective and engaged learning. 

Examples of program-level outcomes:

At the course level, learning outcomes are more specific to what students should be able to know, think, or do when they finish a particular course.  Outcomes at the course level can inform the instructor’s choice of content, methodology, and assessment.  Unlike program outcomes which may be assessed at different points in time over several years, course outcomes should be assessed each time the course is taught.

Examples of course-level outcomes: 


Choosing a Manageable Number of Outcomes


Best practices recommend defining four to six outcomes for both courses and academic programs. (Generally, certificate programs should have no more than three SLOs). Naturally, faculty hope that their students will learn far more than what can be defined in four to six outcomes, but remember, you are defining a manageable number of essential outcomes. 

Consider the following questions:

What are the essential things that students must know and be able to do by the end of your academic program?

What measure will give the best evidence that a student is attaining an outcome? Will the measure also indicate the degree to which the outcomes are attained?

From whom will assessment evidence be gathered? From all students or only some?

At what frequency will assessment measures be administered? Who will review and report on the evidence gathered through the assessment measures?


Strategies for Avoiding the Blank Page


If you are starting from scratch, try to begin with resources you already have. A “top-down” approach to writing program level SLOs would begin by using existing resources in your department such as a mission statement and translate those down to the program level. Alternatively, you could try the “bottom-up” approach which would translate course level objectives up to the program level. In the “bottom-up” approach, it might be useful to review syllabi, assignments, tests, activities, or additional requirements in order to identify learning outcomes.

Additionally, knowing how your colleagues at other institutions are articulating their program level SLOs can be very valuable. You can also borrow from resources such as the Association of American Colleges and Universities Essential Learning Outcomes and VALUE rubrics.

Also, consider your professional associations or societies to see how your discipline may have defined student learning outcomes. 


Curriculum Mapping 


Curricular maps provide a means to visualize the interaction between various learning outcomes. They provide collective visual evidence of educational practices, and allow faculty to assess whether learning outcomes are articulated across their academic program. Additionally, curricular maps allow faculty to identify potential gaps in their learning outcomes or if certain outcomes need to be reassessed due to changes in their discipline. Curriculum maps serve four main purposes:

  1. They encourage dialogue and reflection about collective learning priorities.
  2. They clarify whether collective expectations align with educational practices that stimulate those priorities.
  3. They visually illustrate student learning contexts that may assist faculty later in the assessment cycle to interpret those results.
  4. They allow students to focus on their learning expectations and hold them accountable for learning, while encouraging them to develop their own learning maps throughout their undergraduate or graduate studies. 

Creating a Cohesive Curriculum Map

References: Maki, 2004; Walvoord, 2010