How to Work Effectively with Your Department to Create Student Learning Outcomes

The following information is edited for use by members from The University of Washington's Student Learning Outcomes Website with their permission:

How can the members of my department complete their SLOs, remain friends and find time to teach?

Designing student learning outcomes generally requires the participation of all departmental faculty. Most frequently, the design of outcomes begins with a series of conversations, usually in small groups. Faculty are asked to look to the learning goals for students in their courses or to identify knowledge and performance values in the discipline - both those stated explicitly and those implied - as a way to begin determining learning outcomes for majors. As conversations continue, similar goals for learning begin to emerge. These are listed and revised - either in meetings or over email - as often as necessary until a consensus is built. Once faculty agree on outcomes, it is prudent to give faculty time to think about and wordsmith them before making them public. In preparation consider the following:
  • Inclusion and negotiation.  Both time constraints and the sheer difficulty of reaching broad consensus on how to represent the discipline present the temptation either to delegate the writing of SLOs to a few faculty or to take some generic off-the-shelf language from a department at another institution or a professional association. While this may be appropriate in some cases, consider the advantages of giving voice to all faculty in the shaping of SLOs. Insofar as the SLOs are inclusive and negotiated among all faculty, they will most faithfully represent the rich range of approaches available to students in the department. Admittedly, greater inclusion will slow the development process as greater numbers of viewpoints will need to be heard and accommodated.
  • Faculty or staff project supervision.  Many departments have discovered that appointing a faculty member  to head up the SLO project as part of a departmental service contribution is a wise approach to marshalling the project to completion. Alternatively, an existing faculty committee, such as the curriculum committee, or a program review committee can be given the responsibility of oversight and support. As noted above, we also recommend giving all faculty an opportunity to contribute to the representation of departmental SLOs, perhaps asking the project manager to help negotiate differences and "edit" the final account.
  • Bottom-up or top-down?  There is no one "right" way to carry out departmental-based assessment of SLOs. Some departments may wish to proceed systematically from the course level to the more general level of the major, while others may wish to first articulate overarching program outcomes and then correlate them with individual courses or course clusters or concentrations. Proceeding from either direction, one will want to eventually loop between the two ends, with each informing the other. 

What Questions Should be Asked?

When departments come together to discuss SLOs it is often easiest to ask questions about what students currently are expected to understand and do within the curriculum, such as:

  • What sorts of problems do the students address? What sorts of questions do they ask?
  • What methods do they use to solve those problems or approach answers to those questions?
  • What are some typical topics for senior projects, papers, group activities?
  • What kinds of problems or questions do students realize CAN'T be easily solved or answered?
  • What analytical techniques and methods, software skills, etc do they learn?
  • What information technology tools and data sources do they become adept at using?

In addition, in distinguishing your students' learning outcomes from those in other closely-related disciplines, you might find it useful to address some common stereotypes or misconceptions about what your students can-and can't do. As you do so your department may discover the process is easier if they:

  • Capitalize on past work.  In designing courses and curriculum, considerable thinking about student learning outcomes has already been done. Writing down these expected outcomes may not be a major additional step. In fact, most faculty and departments behave as though they have learning outcomes, even if they have not formally articulated them. For example, capstone courses and experiences are designed to test students' understanding of the concepts and skills required in previous courses in the major. Without some sense of what students should know and be able to do with what they know by the time they matriculate, faculty could not design a capstone. Similarly, when faculty evaluate and revise curriculum, they are keeping implicit learning goals for the major in mind. The move to student learning outcomes simply makes those implicit goals explicit.
  • Focus on student thinking and argumentation.  Many SLOs recognized as national models are cautiously generic and may be appropriate for introductory courses.  For other courses they may fail to convey or embody the intellectual excitement and controversy of the courses or disciplines they represent.  From this perspective, one of our most important outcomes is our students' ability to make and justify persuasive arguments, whether these be in the form of research or study design, lab reports, quantitative or qualitative analyses, performances, research papers, expository essays, literary analyses, or ethnographies, to name a few possibilities.
  • Provide discipline-specific problem orientations.  In many courses students should be able to demonstrate the ability to carefully set up and define a problem, differentiate it from similar problems, and point to further questions. They should demonstrate the ability to solve non-standard problems using a core of facts, theories, methods and techniques. Insofar as SLOs are interchangeable among departments ("critical thinking skills" "problem-solving abilities" "use of scientific method" etc.) they are less useful for students and faculty than those which grapple more substantively with discipline-specific habits of mind.
  • Incorporate various ways for students to demonstrate success.  Give students many occasions to learn and demonstrate complex SLOs. Some ways to measure student learning include performance, collaborative projects, demonstration of practical applications of knowledge in an open-ended "real world" settings or design space, portfolios of selected work, internships, and student self-assessment.
  • Emphasize both content and methods.   Consider the ways your majors are guided by discipline-based practices-- including methods, theories, axioms, and rules-of-thumb--as they decide how to approach and solve a given problem. This often translates into accounting for the "why" and the "how" of learning as well as the "what."
  • Check recent information on how students learn.  For some context and common language, consider the 1999 National Academy of Sciences publication, How People Learn. This text offers cogent overviews of several themes that have changed conceptions of learning over the past 30 years, including new research on memory and knowledge structure; analysis of problem solving and reasoning; new studies of the cognitive development of infants and young children; metacognitive processes and self-regulatory capabilities, and cultural experience and community participation. Especially relevant in this book is the section on "expert performance," in which the authors argue for assessing "particular ways to think and reason effectively." As they put it,
"Understanding expertise is important because it provides insights into the nature of thinking and problem solving. Research shows that it is not simply general abilities, such as memory or intelligence, nor the use of general strategies that differentiate experts from novices. Instead, experts have acquired extensive knowledge that affects what they notice and how they organize, represent, and interpret information in their environment. This, in turn, affects their abilities to remember, reason, and solve problems."
While we of course must be cautious in characterizing our students as "experts", it might nonetheless be fruitful for this project to consider them in such a light, as we characterize how they notice and organize knowledge, apply concepts, define meaningful patterns of information, and in many compelling ways develop knowledge-intensive expertise.

Timeline.  Just as there is no template for assessing SLOs, neither is there a universal timeline for how long this process might take. In some ways, it will be a continuous process insofar as your SLOs are deeply rooted in the main questions and modes of inquiry in your discipline.  

Relationship of SLOs to accountability initiatives.  Genuine questions of unit autonomy and faculty intellectual freedom emerge whenever the teaching/learning conversation is framed in terms of standards or accountability. Assessment of student learning outcomes is integral to SLOs and is a locally-controlled task of representing what students can do at the end of a particular degree program or course that they couldn't do at the beginning. Accountability  is more an aggregate, institutional response to external mandates (from the legislature, the Accrediting Commissions, etc). It should be clear, however, that substantive assessment of SLOs will assist departments if called upon to demonstrate accountability.