Do student learning outcomes reflect the goals of your course or program?

April 12, 2016

Do student learning outcomes reflect the goals of your course or program?

When did you last review the student learning outcomes (SLOs) for your course? When did faculty last review and discuss the program-level SLOs for degree programs offered by their department?

Faculty often write their first set of SLOs under duress. A mandate from an external agency requires that all programs identify SLOs or that all syllabi include a list of SLOs for the course. SLOs written in a hurry may suffer from the following weaknesses:

  • The syllabus has too many SLOs for a course or program.
  • Course and program SLOs describe learning in more detail that is appropriate.
  • Faculty describe aspirational SLOs but fail to consider whether the learning experiences they create provide opportunities for students to practice or acquire these skills.

A long list of detailed SLOs creates difficulties for assessment. Faculty might have difficulty identifying a direct measure for each SLO. Although multiple SLOs might be assessed together on a class exam, few faculty can identify which exam questions assess specific course-level SLOs. Grades on an exam reflect learning on several SLOs and do not function well as assessments of specific SLOs.

A good practice for course or program improvement is to ask faculty to reflect on their SLOs in the context of the assignments and learning activities they require students to complete.

  • Can we describe the specific learning activities that support (and assess) each SLO?
  • If an assignment or exam assesses a bundle of related SLOs, can we create measures for each SLO based on subsets of exam questions or individual elements of the rubric used to grade the work? If we cannot do this, consider writing a single, global SLO that describes the core learning for the bundle.
  • If no assignments or activities support an SLO, why does it exist? Either revise the curriculum or course to support the SLO or delete it.
  • Do you have hidden SLOs? Instructors write many SLOs that describe disciplinary content but overlook SLOs that describe disciplinary skills. However, assignments and projects often give students opportunities to practice skills other than retrieval of content knowledge. They use the disciplinary editorial style to write their papers. They use specialized analytic tools to think about and solve problems. They use disciplinary criteria to evaluate evidence. Students may be unaware of the additional skills instructors embed in a project. Instructors who articulate the SLOs draw student attention to the value of these projects. Write SLOs that describe the goals of assignments such as teaching students to use disciplinary modes of thinking and argument, evaluate evidence, write in a professional style, adhere to ethical practices, and similar skills.

How to deal with the problem of students who are motivated only by grades or “earning a degree.”

Instructors can’t guarantee that students will be learning-oriented. But students who are unable to see any relation between course activities and intended learning outcomes are more likely to focus on “meeting requirements.” If students perceive a course only as a meaningless check-box that stands between them and earning a credential, they will do the least amount of work required to earn a grade and earn the credential. When students do not know the relation between valued skills and course requirements, they are more likely to focus on earning grades rather than learning or developing skills. Students who do not understand the relation between assignments and learning goals are more likely to seek short-cuts (cheating, plagiarism) to earning the credential or grade (Lang, 2013).

Too many students think about attending college in terms of earning a credential. This focus is exacerbated by stories in popular media that highlight the higher earnings of adults who possess a college degree. These stories focus on the earned credential without examining or describing the underlying skills the credential represents. A credential earned without acquiring the underlying knowledge and skills is an empty credential that has little value in the marketplace.

Explain the relation between assignments and SLOs to help students focus on learning. When students understand the relation between SLOs and the readings, activities, and assignments instructors ask them to complete during the course, they are more likely to engage in these activities with a focus on learning and achieving these outcomes rather than earning a grade.

  • The connection between assignments and learning activities must be obvious to students. They must be able to identify which assignments and activities support specific SLOs. When students can describe why an instructor requires students to do something, they are more likely to do it.
  •  Students must value the skill described in an SLO. They may not value the SLO as much as the instructor, but students who do not value the SLO are unlikely to be motivated to engage in associated learning activities, no matter how obvious the connection.


Driscoll, A., & Wood, S. (2007). Developing outcomes-based assessment for learning-centered education: A faculty introduction. Sterling, VA: Stylus.

Lang, J. M. (2013). Cheating lessons: Learning from academic dishonesty. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

04/12/2016 gb