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Writing Effective Learning Outcomes

What are student learning outcomes (SLO’s) and why are they important?

Student learning outcomes can be thought of as statements that describe how you expect students to be different as a result of successfully completing a particular academic program or course. They serve both as an organizational framework for the other components of the program or course and as means of communicating learning expectations to the students. The effort invested in developing thoughtful, deliberate, and purposeful learning outcomes will have pay-offs for both students and instructors. Student engagement and learning will improve and instructors will gain a richer understanding of learning in individual courses and across entire programs.

  • Well-written learning outcomes are an integral component of effective assessment of student learning.
  • Well-written learning outcomes are an integral component of effective course and program design. “Backward” design (first described by Wiggins and McTighe and popularized in higher ed course design by Fink) starts with identifying desired learning outcomes. For programs, the courses that will be necessary to meet the outcomes follow from the learning outcomes themselves. For courses, the assessments and learning activities then follow from those desired outcomes.
    • SLO’s are integral to the learning process itself and are therefore most effective when clearly communicated to students! Be sure to include them in your syllabus and refer to them often throughout the program or course. Help your students “connect the dots” in the course by drawing their attention to connections between individual activities and assignments and the learning outcomes.
  • Writing effective student learning outcomes is the first step in understanding whether students are learning what you want them to learn!

Keep in mind…

  • Program-level student learning outcomes, course-level student learning outcomes, and module-level outcomes all serve somewhat different purposes. They are therefore written with different considerations in mind, although they are similar in many ways.
    • The guidelines and recommendations given here relate especially to course-level learning outcomes. For assistance with module-level or program-level outcomes, specifically, please contact the Teaching and Learning Commons (see the "Request TLC Assistance" link at the top right of this page).
  • Alignment of learning outcomes with assessments and learning activities (not necessarily with Bloom’s taxonomy!) will help set your students up to be successful in achieving your learning goals for them.
  • Related to alignment, make sure the course learning outcomes are achievable, each individual outcome as well as the set of outcomes as a whole.
  • Learning outcomes can (and should!) be explicitly referenced to help students contextualize learning. They serve as a guide for both you and your students.
  • Learning outcomes are unrelated to the mode of instruction. The learning outcomes for a particular course should be the same, regardless of whether the course is taught face-to-face, online, or in a hybrid modality.
  • Student learning is not limited to courses and academic programs! We expect learning to occur throughout a student’s college experience, much of it in co-curricular settings (such as tutoring centers, advising appointments, and even the student conduct process!). Identifying appropriate student learning outcomes is important to understanding co-curricular learning as well.
  • If your program or academic unit has specialized accreditation, any requirements or guidelines from the accrediting body should take priority over information on this website.
    • Even if your program isn’t accredited, your discipline may have guidelines or recommendations for writing student learning outcomes. These can often be found on the websites of professional associations for the discipline.

Don’t sweat the small stuff!

  • Vocabulary (especially if you’re not sure whether to call it a learning goal, objective, or outcome!). Learning goals, objectives, and outcomes are not the same thing, but these terms often get used interchangeably. Also, their meanings tend to differ depending on context (and accrediting body and even academic discipline). The important distinction is less about your choice of label and more about whether it refers to student learning or to what the instructor (or group of program faculty) intends to do (e.g., a program can have goals for placement of graduates or retention, but those are only indirectly related to student learning).In higher ed assessment, the term mostly commonly used to refer to intended or actual learning is “student learning outcome” (SLO, course learning outcome, program learning outcome, etc.). If you prefer to call them learning objectives or learning goals, rather than learning outcomes, that’s ok!
  • Verb choice (especially if you want to use a verb that isn’t on some “approved” verb list). We’ve provided a few of our favorite lists of verbs for student learning outcomes to inspire rather than constrain you. If the verb that best describes the kind of learning you want your students to achieve isn’t on any of these lists, that’s ok!
  • Bloom’s taxonomy (especially if the intended learning outcome doesn’t perfectly match one of the levels in Bloom’s taxonomy).
    • Bloom’s taxonomy can be a useful framework through which to organize your students’ learning experiences but it has drawbacks, chief of which is that it applies only to learning in the cognitive domain (i.e., does not apply to learning in the psychomotor or affective domains). Other taxonomies, such as Fink’s, are sometimes preferable, and it is entirely possible to write effective learning outcomes without reference to any of the common learning taxonomies. Above all, don’t be constrained by any learning framework!
  • And don’t worry if…
    • You’re struggling to figure out how to “measure” learning in your discipline. When we say that student learning outcomes should be “measurable,” we mean that, for each outcome, you should be able to identify what you or a colleague in your discipline would consider to be acceptable, observable evidence that the learning described by the outcome has occurred. The types of acceptable evidence vary greatly with discipline and desired level of learning.
    • After teaching the course a time or two, you want to revise one (or more!) of your outcomes. Writing effective learning outcomes is an iterative process! Once you’ve had a chance to “road test” all of your course components, you may want to revise any (or all!) of them. If you do make revisions, be sure to re-check the alignment of all course components.

Ready to write? Here’s our best advice:

  1. Less is more (up to a point!). Or, when it comes to student learning outcomes, having fewer is likely to make your course more effective. If you’re having trouble paring down a long list of learning outcomes, it may be that your outcomes are written at a level more appropriate for a module than for a course. You can talk with someone in the Teaching and Learning Commons for assistance with developing course-level learning outcomes from your module outcomes or objectives.
  2. Knowing whether or not a learning outcome has been met, and understanding learning more broadly, requires more than intuition. For each outcome, think about what you (and a colleague in your discipline) would consider to be acceptable empirical evidence that the learning described by the outcome has occurred. The types of acceptable evidence vary greatly with discipline and desired level of learning but should be convincing to other professionals in your discipline.
  3. Write your learning outcomes from the perspective of how you expect students to be different by the end of the course (or program) in some observable way(s). Learning outcomes often begin with a phrase such as, “By the end of this course, students will…” (know, be able to, etc.).
  4. Be specific. This will help students understand the learning expectations for the course and what they will need to do to meet those expectations. It will also make it easier for you to develop assessments and learning activities that align with the learning outcomes. Choosing a verb from one of the many lists compiled for writing learning outcomes will make it much easier to write a learning outcome that is specific.
  5. Along with being specific, striving for clear, concise wording will also help students understand expectations in your course.
  6. Don’t confuse the learning outcome with the activity students will complete to demonstrate that they’ve met the outcome. If we think of learning as a journey, the outcome is the destination and the activities are the route students take to get there. Having students write lab reports is an example that illustrates this distinction. The desired learning outcomes may be that students are able to write in the rhetoric of the discipline, that they are able to interpret and graph data, and that they are able to base conclusions on data. Writing the lab report is one way to have them demonstrate progress towards those outcomes. In other words, writing a lab report is both a learning activity and a means by which you can assess several course learning outcomes (Suskie, 2018, p. 47).
  7. Don’t underestimate the learning that can occur in your course! Don’t write learning outcomes that describe a lower level of learning than you actually expect of your students. Learning outcomes should accurately reflect the type or level of learning you are seeking. Make sure you expect learning that is appropriate for both the degree/program and the place of the course within the program. For example, the learning you expect in a foundational course for first-year students in the major is quite different than what you expect from seniors in a capstone course in that major.
  8. Bloom’s (original or revised) or Fink’s taxonomies can provide a useful framework to support your own thought process about what you want students to learn. Remember that Bloom’s taxonomy applies only to the cognitive domain of learning. Learning is more complex than the simple diagram for any learning framework can capture, so don’t allow Bloom’s taxonomy or other framework to constrain your creativity or innovation.
  9. Make sure course learning outcomes are aligned with the assessments and learning activities. Writing the learning outcomes can be thought of as both the first and last steps of backward course design. Begin by writing learning outcomes and then—after developing the assessments and learning activities for the course—revisit the learning outcomes to make sure there is good alignment among all three course components.

If you’d like to talk with someone about writing student learning outcomes, or would like to have someone review your course for alignment of learning outcomes, assessments, and learning activities, please contact the Teaching and Learning Commons. We’d love to hear about your course!

And if you’re looking for inspiration…

Examples of student learning outcomes from WVU courses can be found at the very bottom of the WVU assessment resources.

We also have examples of program-level learning outcomes, from WVU programs (both undergraduate and graduate).

For additional reading:

Angelo, T. A., and K. P. Cross. 1993. Classroom Assessment Techniques: A Handbook for College Teachers (2nd edition). San Fancisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Barr, R.B., and J. Tagg. 1995. From teaching to learning—A new paradigm for undergraduate education. Change 27(6): 13-25.

Fink, L. D. 2013. Creating Significant Learning Experiences, Revised and Updated. San Fancisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

National Institute for Learning Outcomes Assessment (NILOA): https://www.learningoutcomesassessment.org/Nilson, L. B. 2016. Teaching at Its Best: A Research-Based Resource for College Instructors (4th edition). San Fancisco: Jossey-Bass/John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

MarylandOnline. 2018. Quality Matters Higher Education Rubric, Sixth Edition.

Suskie, L. 2018. Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide, 3rd Edition. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.Tagg, J. 2003. The Learning Paradigm College. San Francisco: Anker/Jossey-Bass.

Walvoord, Barbara E. 2 010. Assessment Clear and Simple: A Practical Guide for Institutions, Departments, and General Education, 2nd Edition. San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.