How to Work Effectively with
Your Department to Create Student Learning Outcomes
The following information is edited for use by
4faculty.org members from The
University of Washington's Student Learning Outcomes Website with
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
- 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,
- 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
- 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
- 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.
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.