Creating Student Learning Outcomes for the Department or Program
The first step for departments to conduct effective assessments of student learning is for their faculty to develop a shared understanding of the knowledge and skills that their graduates should be able to demonstrate as a result of their course of study. This is where departmental learning outcomes come in.
What are learning outcomes?
Departmental or programmatic learning outcomes broadly describe the learning that will take place across the curriculum through concise statements, made in specific and measurable terms, of what students will know and/or be able to do as the result of having successfully completed a program of study.
How are learning outcomes different from learning goals?
These two words are often used interchangeably and both are related to the teaching and learning that is expected to take place in the classroom and over the course of a student’s career within a department. However, the difference between goals and outcomes lies in the emphasis on who will be performing the activities. Learning goals generally describe what an instructor or program aims to do; i.e., “The curriculum will introduce students to the major research methods of the discipline.” Whereas, a learning outcome describes in observable and measurable terms what a student is able to do as a result of completing a course or program; i.e., “At the completion of this program students will be able to explain the differences between research methods and identify strengths and limitations of various research designs.” The creation of effective learning outcomes focuses on the student and what he or she can do, not on what the instructor has taught.
Looking for information on course objectives? Go to DePaul’s Teaching Commons for more information.
How to Write Learning Outcomes
Writing learning outcomes should be a reflective, faculty-guided process as the members of the department best understand their discipline and their expectations of their majors. Many departments find the following steps to be helpful as they begin the process of creating learning outcomes for their majors.
Reflect with other faculty (and whenever possible alumni and students) on the question: What it is that graduates should know or be able to do with a degree in your discipline?
Refer to resources from your discipline, department, college, and the university about expectations of graduates. Disciplinary associations often have websites and publications that provide useful assessment materials. Institutional expectations of students can often be found in department and institutional learning goals, missions, and vision statements.
Draft questions in outcome form. In order to keep the outcomes student centered, begin each one with “Students will be able to…” and choose action verbs that can be observed and measured. TLA has guides that assist in choosing verbs and to help remind writers of the various characteristics of good outcomes.
- Group outcomes in broad categories based on similarity to determine if one outcome can take the place of several:
“Students will be able to design and conduct experiments to address questions germane to the discipline.”
“Students will be able to design and administer surveys that address questions appropriate to the discipline.”
“Students will be able to conduct interviews and focus groups that address questions relevant to the discipline.”
In this case if the ability to design and execute research within the discipline is a valued skill for graduates to have, it may be more appropriate to rephrase the outcome as:
“Students will be able to design and execute research plans using the major methodologies of the discipline (experiments, surveys, qualitative techniques, etc.) to answer disciplinary specific questions.”
Share the draft outcomes with others to be certain that the most significant learning is captured in the outcomes and that the language is written in such a way that it is understandable to those who do not have a background in the field (advisors, potential students and their parents, employers).
What are the Characteristics of Good Student Learning Outcomes?
If your department already has learning goals that it would like to develop into outcomes or is examining its current learning outcomes there are several characteristics to look for:
Learning outcomes are student-centered in that they focus on the knowledge and skills that students can demonstrate (not on what instructors or curriculum aim to teach students).
The learning described in department -and program-level outcomes should encompass the essential and significant knowledge and skills expected of major, generally near the completion of their course of study.
Generally outcomes are short; usually one sentence in length that clearly states the behaviors that students should be able to demonstrate.
Outcomes focus on the action that signifies student learning by using concrete, measurable verbs: Action Verbs. First drafts of outcomes often contain verbs like understand, be aware of or appreciate that are difficult to observe and measure. Actionable verbs such as interpret, compare, design, and evaluate are far more concrete and less complicated to observe and evaluate.
The number of outcomes will vary from department to department, usually between 5 and 7, and generally not more than ten (per degree program). The focus should be on creating a manageable number of significant learning outcomes, it is better to work with six focused outcomes of significant learning than a dozen scattered ones.
The Office for Teaching, Learning & Assessment is available to consult with departments and individual faculty members, additionally the office has many resources on assessment and creating learning outcomes that we’re happy to share.
Why Write Student Learning Outcomes?
As mentioned, identifying the most important things students should learn within their programs is the first step in deciding what should be assessed, but learning outcomes have other uses as well; they:
- Can assist departments and program to think about their curriculums. When outcomes are defined, departments can map the outcomes onto the courses that they teach to identify areas within the program where outcomes may overlap (or otherwise be redundant) or where gaps may exist.
- Allow departments and programs to indicate what knowledge, skills and abilities students are expected to have mastered at the end of their course of study and allow them to communicate expectations to students.
- Provide students with a way to articulate the knowledge and abilities that they have gained and to express what they know to others.
- Assist faculty in determining appropriate assessment strategies.
- Inform potential employers of the abilities of a department’s graduates.