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)
Assessment of Student Learning Outcomes
Teaching requires assessment, i.e., the evaluation of student understanding in light of the goals of a lesson or a course. This is a broad definition, and indeed, there are many forms of assessment, and all of them involve student work. That work can be graded or ungraded. It can take a few minutes (as with the one-minute paper) or it can take weeks (as with the group project). It can ask students to demonstrate understanding or skills acquisition through writing, the creation of a product or presentation, or the ability to successfully accomplish some task. It can ask students to demonstrate their understanding as individuals or as members of a group.
Student learning outcomes articulate what a student should know or can do after completing a course or program. The assessment of student learning outcomes provides information that puts student learning at the forefront of academic planning processes. At the University of Maryland, the Provost’s Commission on Learning Outcomes Assessment provides the leadership and organizational procedures for our engagement in such assessment.
No matter their form, assessments should reflect—and be determined by—the learning goals of a lesson or a course. But linking goals to assessment can be tricky. If your goal is for students to understand a concept, do you mean that they should be able to recall facts? Summarize information? Apply information or predict consequences? Analyze or compare phenomena? Generate models? Evaluate and justify arguments? Perhaps you want your students to be able to demonstrate their understanding by doing a combination of these things. You should ask yourself whether or not your assessments are related to the goals of the lesson or the course, e.g., are the assessments measuring whether students have met the learning goals?
You might think of assessment as a multi-step process in which you:
- Formulate a clear and succinct learning goal (or goals) for your students.
- Articulate those learning goals to your students.
- Decide what your students should be able to do if they have met those learning goals.
- Develop an assessment instrument (a test, essay, project, etc.) and a scoring rubric.
- Administer the assessment instrument to your students.
- Evaluate your students’ performance on the assessment instrument.
- Assess your students’ mastery of the learning goals given their performance on the assessment instrument.
- Reflect on why students did or did not master the learning goals, and develop strategies to help them be as or more successful in the future.
Assessments can be powerful contexts for student learning. They can:
- understanding of a topic
- that think about their own learning
- know or have learned in your class or in previous courses
Campus Student Learning Outcomes
The Provost’s Commission on Learning Outcomes Assessment produced “learning goals that span multiple common expectations for all UM undergraduates, including critical thinking and research skills, written and oral communication, science and quantitative reasoning, information literacy, and technological fluency.” They are available at https://www.irpa.umd.edu/Assessment/LearningOutcomes.
The Provost’s Commission researched and formulated the following University-wide learning goals for UM students, which correspond to the essential elements of an undergraduate education as stated by Middle States Standard 12. These goals articulate the educational outcomes to which we as a University aspire for our graduates. The goals for these elements are not exhaustive, and not every student will necessarily master each goal. Finally, these goals must be understood as articulating with the goals and objectives of our General Education program and those of academic disciplines.
Critical Reasoning and Research Skills
Goal: University of Maryland undergraduates should learn and develop critical reasoning (https://www.irpa.umd.edu/Assessment/Examples/crit-think-rubric.doc) and research skills that they can apply successfully within a wide range and intersection of disciplines inside and outside of academia.
Written and Oral Communication
Goal: Using standard English, University of Maryland undergraduates will communicate clearly and effectively in writing and orally for different audiences and purposes.
Science and Quantitative Reasoning
Goal: University of Maryland undergraduates should understand and be able to apply basic scientific and mathematical reasoning to their research efforts and critical analyses.
Information Literacy Skills
Goal: University of Maryland undergraduates will learn and develop information literacy skills that they can successfully apply within a wide range and intersection of disciplines inside and outside academia.
Goal: University of Maryland undergraduates will be able to understand basic technologies and how these relate to their specific disciplines, and will be able to apply these technologies to their research and academic efforts.
See https://www.irpa.umd.edu/Assessment/LOA-ug.html for a detailed description of each learning goal.