Overview of Student Learning Outcomes

by Cordell Briggs and Susan Ingram

As business leaders and governmental officials have expressed concern about a declining competence and level of skills in the American workforce, a national movement has emerged since the 1980’s focusing on the need to produce a highly qualified workforce. Federal and state legislative officials, along with business leaders, have emphasized the need for increased accountability in the workplace; they have also emphasized that colleges and universities have a major role in preparing the workforce of the twenty-first century. Leaders at all levels now want to know that students have learned and not that student have been taught. In their accreditation standards, accrediting institutions for colleges and universities have responded to the charge by such leaders to ensure that institutions of higher education develop a “culture of evidence” with data on student learning outcomes. As a result, colleges and universities have begun to identify intended outcomes of students’ learning and to document students’ achievement of those outcomes.

Institutions now document students’ learning at several instructional levels:

  • The first level is the programmatic area of study, where a series of courses constituting an academic or vocational plan of study should present learning outcomes, specific observable and measurable statements to describe demonstrated knowledge, skills, abilities, and attitudes of students who complete degree and certificate programs. These statements at the programmatic level should indicate what students will know and be able to do as they complete their programs of study.
  • For students to demonstrate programmatic levels of competence, institutions now also require that programs document students’ learning at the course level. Institutions must now emphasize that acquiring content or knowledge in a course is not enough: students must evince the knowledge acquired in the course through a variety of demonstrations.
  • At the course section level, where each faculty member is responsible for ensuring that student learning outcomes of the course are met, the instructional objectives in the course syllabus ought to reflect that students have the opportunity to demonstrate that they have learned and achieved the content of the course.

Just how do student learning outcomes differ from course objectives?

  • While our past programmatic plans, curriculum approved outlines, and course syllabi may have stated clear course objectives, accrediting institutions and visiting teams expect institutions to be very specific about what students have learned.
  • Unlike course objectives that tend to focus on the content to be examined in the course, student learning outcomes focus on what students are able to accomplish as a result of learning the content.
  • In addition, student learning outcomes indicate how students will demonstrate their having learned the content. These statements reveal that students will be able to produce in a variety of ways their knowledge, skills, and ability to apply their newly acquired knowledge in a variety of contexts.

As you read the following articles about writing SLO’s, you will see that the implementation of SLO’s in standards of national accrediting commissions is more than “old wine” in new glasses. Creating and using SLO’s in our courses add quality and focus on both instruction and learning.

The chart displayed below provides a different way to view the interconnectivity between college-wide assessment of student learning and course level assessment of student learning. Institutional assessment addresses student learning outcomes from the highest programmatic level to the lowest course section level, which involves each instructor. As the chart reveals on the highest level SLO node, the three major programmatic areas of instruction, student services, and administration ought to be involved in student learning. From that node, instruction as an example, the program, course, and course section levels should be hierarchically interconnected with student learning outcomes. From the Achievement node emanate the type of action verb (Action Verb) to demonstrate the achieved learning, the level of ability (Competence) based upon lower (LO) and higher (HO) order learning to be demonstrated, and the assessment strategy (AS) to be performed to demonstrate the achieved learning. Beneath the lower and higher order abilities to be demonstrated are the SLO’s with the specific learning skill and assessment characteristic to be achieved. Finally, the assessment strategies involving the means of determining student learning outcomes may include normative and criterion-referenced tests, papers, oral presentations, portfolios, and surveys.


What are the Benefits of the Student Learning Outcomes Discussion?**

Some of the benefits of using student learning outcomes are as follows:

  • Increased student awareness of their own learning
    Student learning outcomes give students a way to think and talk about what they have learned. Being able to state - either verbally or in writing - what they now can do that they could not do previously helps students organize their own learning for themselves and for external audiences, such as job interviewers. SLOs make it easier for students to "know what they know" and give them a language to communicate what they know to others. 
  • Another avenue for faculty self-assessment
    Use and assessment of student learning outcomes help faculty evaluate and improve their own teaching.
  • A common language about learning for departments
    Student learning outcomes can help departments develop a common language that students, faculty, and staff share. This common language can facilitate communication and build bridges among various departmental services for students, such as advising and instruction. 
  • A context for course design and revision
    Student learning outcomes can assist design of new courses, especially in the section asking for course rationales and positioning in departmental curriculum. In addition, SLOs can help faculty revise courses they currently teach, assisting them, for example, in developing writing assignments that incorporate the skills, methodology, and thinking that the major values. 
  • A map for curricular assessment and change
    Use of learning outcomes helps departments think about curriculum. When learning goals are defined, units can determine in which courses each outcome is addressed, where excessive redundancy and overlap occur, and where gaps are present.
  • Assistance for advisors
    With well thought out and developed course outcomes that have been made public to students, it will be much easier to establish criteria for grading assignments and to develop and score examinations. Course outcomes are an important first step toward clear communications of expectations to students. 
  • Advising tools
    The job of advising becomes easier when advisors have expected course and program outcomes that they can point to when advising students on either course or major selection. 
  • Improvement in promotional materials
    Departments will be able to promote their programs to students and other constituents via the presentation of the outcomes toward which they strive. Common SLO language can also be of enormous benefit in designing web pages intended to highlight departmental curricula and devising keywords as metatags to attract "hits" from search engines.
  • Assessment and Accreditation
    Many accrediting associations, including the Northwest Association of Schools and Colleges, are including lists of student learning outcomes and evidence of the extent to which they are being met as part of their requirements. Furthermore, it may be just a matter of time until the State of Washington makes similar demands.

**Edited for use by 4faculty.org members from The University of Washington's Student Learning Outcomes Website with their permission