Writing and Assessing Student Learning Outcomes
By the end of a program of study, what do you want students to be able to do? How can your students demonstrate the knowledge the program intended them to learn? Student learning outcomes are statements developed by faculty that answer these questions. Typically, Student learning outcomes (SLOs) describe the knowledge, skills, attitudes, behaviors or values students should be able to demonstrate at the end of a program of study. A combination of methods may be used to assess student attainment of learning outcomes.
Characteristics of Student Learning Outcomes (SLOs)
- Describe what students should be able to demonstrate, represent or produce upon completion of a program of study (Maki, 2010)
- Rely on active verbs that identify what students should be able to demonstrate, represent, or produce (Maki, 2010)
Student learning outcomes also:
- Should align with the institution’s curriculum and co-curriculum outcomes (Maki, 2010)
- Should be collaboratively authored and collectively accepted (Maki, 2010)
- Should incorporate or adapt professional organizations outcome statements when they exist (Maki, 2010)
- Can be quantitatively and/or qualitatively assessed during a student’s studies (Maki, 2010)
Examples of Student Learning Outcomes
The following examples of student learning outcomes are too general and would be very hard to measure : (T. Banta personal communication, October 20, 2010)
- will appreciate the benefits of exercise science.
- will understand the scientific method.
- will become familiar with correct grammar and literary devices.
- will develop problem-solving and conflict resolution skills.
The following examples, while better are still general and again would be hard to measure. (T. Banta personal communication, October 20, 2010)
- will appreciate exercise as a stress reduction tool.
- will apply the scientific method in problem solving.
- will demonstrate the use of correct grammar and various literary devices.
- will demonstrate critical thinking skills, such as problem solving as it relates to social issues.
The following examples are specific examples and would be fairly easy to measure when using the correct assessment measure: (T. Banta personal communication, October 20, 2010)
- will explain how the science of exercise affects stress.
- will design a grounded research study using the scientific method.
- will demonstrate the use of correct grammar and various literary devices in creating an essay.
- will analyze and respond to arguments about racial discrimination.
Importance of Action Verbs and Examples from Bloom’s Taxonomy
- Action verbs result in overt behavior that can be observed and measured (see list below).
- Verbs that are unclear, and verbs that relate to unobservable or unmeasurable behaviors, should be avoided (e.g., appreciate, understand, know, learn, become aware of, become familiar with).
Instructors may measure student learning outcomes directly, assessing student-produced artifacts and performances; instructors may also measure student learning indirectly, relying on students own perceptions of learning.
Direct Measures of Assessment
Direct measures of student learning require students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. They provide tangible, visible and self-explanatory evidence of what students have and have not learned as a result of a course, program, or activity (Suskie, 2004; Palomba & Banta, 1999). Examples of direct measures include:
- Objective tests
- Classroom assignments
This example of a Student Learning Outcome (SLO) from psychology could be assessed by an essay, case study, or presentation: Students will analyze current research findings in the areas of physiological psychology, perception, learning, abnormal and social psychology.
Indirect Measures of Assessment
Indirect measures of student learning capture students’ perceptions of their knowledge and skills; they supplement direct measures of learning by providing information about how and why learning is occurring. Examples of indirect measures include:
- Self assessment
- Peer feedback
- End of course evaluations
- Focus groups
- Exit interviews
Using the SLO example from above, an instructor could add questions to an end-of-course evaluation asking students to self-assess their ability to analyze current research findings in the areas of physiological psychology, perception, learning, abnormal and social psychology. Doing so would provide an indirect measure of the same SLO.
- Balances the limitations inherent when using only one method (Maki, 2004).
- Provides students the opportunity to demonstrate learning in an alternative way (Maki, 2004).
- Contributes to an overall interpretation of student learning at both institutional and programmatic levels.
- Values the many ways student learn (Maki, 2004).
Bloom, B. (1956) A taxonomy of educational objectives, The classification of educational goals-handbook I: Cognitive domain . New York: McKay .
Maki, P.L. (2004). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution . Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Maki, P.L. (2010 ). Assessing for learning: Building a sustainable commitment across the institution (2nd ed.) . Sterling, VA: Stylus.
Palomba, C.A., & Banta, T.W. (1999). Assessment essentials: Planning, implementing, and improving assessment in higher education . San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Suskie, L. (2004). Assessing student learning: A common sense guide. Bolton, MA: Anker Publishing.
Authored by Mona Kheiry (March, 2011)Revised by Terri Tarr (February, 2014)
Revised by Doug Jerolimov (April, 2016)
Coats, Maggie (2002). In: Association for the Study of Evaluation in Education in Southern Africa (ASEESA) International Conference, July 2002, Johannesburg, South Africa.Full text available as:
This paper documents current developments in the UK Open University (UK/OU) with reference to the requirement in the UK that all Higher Education institutions now have to describe their programmes in terms of learning outcomes. In response to this, the UK/OU set up a three-year Learning Outcomes and Their Assessment (LOTA) Project to explore and implement an outcomes-based approach to curriculum design and delivery throughout the university. The intended learning outcomes for all courses and all programmes of study have now been documented in course and
programme specifications. Currently the challenge is to ensure that assessment strategies and assessment methods support the development of the stated outcomes and enable them to be appropriately assessed. The LOTA Project has always seen assessment as part of the learning process
through both formative and summative assignments. In many OU courses academic essays are used to assess students work, both throughout a course and in the final
examination. The paper goes on to describe an action research project that set out to examine the extent to which assessment through essays encouraged students to both
develop and demonstrate the outcomes claimed by each course. The aim of the project was to explore the process of essay writing and essay marking. It involved pairs of tutors who exchanged and double-marked the essays of two of
their students throughout the course and met at the end of the year to compare their experiences. The assessment materials provided by the course team were examined
and the progress of the students analysed through their essays. The evidence suggests that essay writing can be used to assess learning outcomes but that present practice
shows these are not explicit and that many students fail to demonstrate them. With clearer guidance to tutors and to students, both cognitive and communication skills
could be developed more effectively and assessed more rigorously. The findings contribute to on-going work to find better ways of enhancing students' learning
through the articulation and assessment of outcomes. The paper concludes that moving towards an outcomes-based curriculum, with appropriate assessment strategies, can enhance student learning but the process needs to be more transparent and to explicitly encourage a meta-cognitive approach.
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