Designing Student Learning Outcomes

Edited from the work of Janet Fulks, Assessing Student Learning in Community Colleges (2004), Bakersfield College and used with permission.

How do I/we design Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)?

Learning outcomes are clear and measurable statements that define what a student is able to DO at the completion of a course or program.

  • Focus on what the student can do. Don't address what was taught or presented, but address the observable outcome you expect to see in the student.)
  • Use active verbs.  Active verbs are easier to measure. For instance, if you want the students to understand how to correctly use a microscope - using the word understand is not measurable. Can you measure understanding? Instead try to imagine the outcome - Students will focus and display an image on the microscope. For this I can both develop criteria and measure ability. 
  • Include an assessable expectation. It helps if you have clearly defined expectations concerning the criteria related to that outcome. In the above example, some of the criteria related to using the microscope would include:

    • a clearly focused image
    • correct lighting adjustment of the diaphragm and condenser
    • appropriate magnification for the object
    • an evenly distributed specimen field
    • clearly located object identified by the pointer
    • a written identification
  • Share the outcomes with faculty from other disciplines and within your own discipline. This helps focus the meaning of the statements. For instance in the above criteria the faculty might ask for clarification of "appropriate magnification."
  • Share the outcomes with your students. Students need to clearly understand what is expected, they  are often unfamiliar with the discipline specific language. This helps focus the clarity of the statements.
  • Modify as you learn from experience. Leave the word "DRAFT" at the top of your SLOs to remind yourself and communicate to others that you are actively improving them.

Do all SLOs have to be measured or measurable?

Some learning outcomes are difficult or even impossible to measure. Outcomes that are difficult to measure or currently impossible to measure are just as important or more important to faculty as those that are more readily measurable. They should be included in outcomes statements along with outcomes that are more easily assessed. Outcomes that appear to be impossible to measure under the best of circumstances should be questioned with an eye to reconceptualizing such that they become measurable.  Measurable outcomes are the most persuasive and unambiguous.
Dig DIG DEEPER for a list of assessment techniques, or for even more detail see the module on assessment.

How do objectives and goals differ from learning outcomes?

Student learning outcomes build upon, but are different from, course or program objectives and goals because they represent a new perspective. 

Objectives Outcomes

Objectives represent valuable skills, tools, or content (nuts and bolts) that enable a student to engage a particular subject.

SLOs represent overarching products of the course.

Objectives focus on content and skills important within the classroom or program: what the staff and faculty will do. Often termed the input in the course.

Outcomes express higher level thinking skills that integrate the content and activities and can be observed as a behavior, skill, or discrete useable knowledge upon completing the class.

Objectives can often be numerous,  specific, and detailed. Assessing and reporting on each objective for each student may be impossible.

An assessable outcome is an end product that can be displayed or observed and evaluated against criteria.

Examples of Course Objectives Transformed Into Student Learning Outcomes*

Course Objective Statement of Desired SLO
Write well-organized, accurate and significant content. (English) Context:      Given an in-class writing task based on an assigned reading,

Objective:    demonstrate appropriate and competent writing which

Traits:     states a thesis, supports assertions, maintains unity of thought and purpose, is organized, and is technically correct in paragraph composition, sentence structure, grammar, spelling, and word use.

Analyze behavior following the major accepted theories. (Psychology) Context:       Given a particular behavior and its context (e.g., playing incessantly with one’s hair when under pressure in the presence of the opposite sex),

Objective:    describe how the perspectives of behaviorism, humanistic, psychoanalytic, and biological psychology would interpret that behavior and what methods might each use to alter that behavior.

Traits:          Include theoretical basis, description of causality, and treatment regimen.

Understand and apply the scientific method. (Biology) Context:       Given a hypothesis,

Objective:    design experiments and interpret data according to the scientific method in order to evaluate the hypothesis. 

Traits:          Include the ability to approach the scientific method in a variety of ways, formulate questions, design experiments that answer the questions; and manipulate and evaluate the experimental data to reach conclusions.

Compare and contrast the text and film versions of a literary work. (Film) Context:       After viewing an assigned film based on a literary text,

Objective:    write a review of the film.

Traits:          Include an appraisal of the director’s selection and effective translation of content from the literary text and the dominant tone the director seems to be trying to achieve, supporting each statement with detail from the text and film and your personal reaction to the cited scenes.

*Bill Scroggins, The Teaching Learning Cycle:  Using Student Learning Outcome Results to Improve Teaching and Learning, November 2004