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
- 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
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
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
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
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
- 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