Program Learning Outcomes
In the assessment cycle’s first step faculty create assessable student learning outcomes. More specifically, they establish program learning outcomes for the majors their department houses and course learning outcomes for each program’s required classes.
Student learning outcomes (SLOs) is a generic term that refers to what students should know or be able to do upon the successful completion of:
- A course, also known as Course Learning Outcomes (CLOs)
- A major, also known as Program Learning Outcomes (PLOs)
- A degree, also known as Institutional Learning Outcomes (ILOs)
Every SLO has a hook and ladder.
The “hook” is an SLO’s introductory phrase. It can be any variation on this: “Students who successfully complete [name the learning unit] should be able to do the following:” Here are some examples:
- “Upon the successful completion of Philosophy 100, students should be able to demonstrate the following:”
- “Graduates with a major in Computer Engineering will be expected to do the following:”
- “Those who earn an undergraduate degree at EWU should have the following abilities:”
The “ladder” is the list of skills and knowledge that students need to demonstrate to pass the course, complete the academic program successfully, or graduate. (The term “ladder” isn’t meant to imply a hierarchy or progression of skills; it’s just a term chosen as a visual reminder of a bullet-pointed list.) For the hook “Students graduating with a major in English should be able to do the following,” the ladder could be:
- Identify important literary periods
- Identify major writers
- Closely analyze literary texts using appropriate literary and critical vocabulary
- Synthesize theoretical knowledge to produce original written interpretations of literary texts
- Appropriately employ pertinent secondary sources in writing
- Demonstrate effective communication skills in academic, professional, or creative writing
Do’s and Don’ts in Writing SLOs
Student learning outcomes are the foundation of assessment. Without sound learning outcomes, meaningful assessment can’t take place. Observing the following rules and best practices will enhance your chances of collecting meaningful evidence.
The Two Necessary and Sufficient Criteria for SLOs to be Assessable by Faculty
In order for each rung in the SLO ladder to be assessable by faculty members, it must meet the following two criteria:
Start with a verb that can be observed by the instructor:
Instructors are unable to evaluate what they can’t see or hear. Therefore, student learning outcomes need to describe an action that the faculty can observe. Examples of verbs that correspond with observable actions include the following:
Unobservable verbs, by contrast, are actions that the student may be able to assess about him or herself but are not directly accessible to and, therefore, assessable by an external observer—that is, the faculty. Examples of these verbs include:
- become familiar with
Do not use unobservable verbs in your student learning outcomes.
If you have a SLO with an unobservable verb, translate it into an action you can see or hear. For example, rather than, “Students who graduate with a BA in Economics will understand core microeconomic principles,” an SLO could read, “Students who graduate with a BA in Economics will be able to explain core microeconomic principles.”
Describe a Single Action:
Have you ever been unsure how to respond to a survey item like “The presenter was well prepared and the lecture was interesting” because you thought the first part was true but disagreed with the second part? That’s because the item was double-barrelled (or, if you prefer, double-actioned). To generate useful results, SLOs, like survey items, need to be single-barrelled. If students should know or be able to do two or more things (e.g., “express and describe stylistic elements associated with an artistic genre,” “translate ancient and contemporary Greek texts into English”), you need to split the SLO into two (or more) SLOs.
As a general rule, avoid using the word “and” in your SLOs to ensure that they describe a single action. There are occasions, though rare, when “and” is okay. An example is, “Students who pass Sociology 301 will be able to integrate Durkheim’s and Weber’s theories of society.” The “and” in this SLO is not problematic because the assessor will only be evaluating a single skill, namely, the ability to integrate the theories.
Best Practices for Writing SLOs
In addition to adhering to the two necessary and sufficient criteria when writing your SLOs, you are encouraged to follow the best practices described here in order to reap the greatest benefit from assessment.
Keep the list of your SLOs short:
You will be expected to assess each SLO every year. So you are advised to keep the list of SLOs short to make assessment manageable and sustainable. As a rule of thumb, a sufficiently ambitious but doable number of SLOs is as follows:
- About four to six CLOs for a four-unit course
- About five to nine PLOs for a major
- About five to seven ILOs for a degree (i.e., GE outcomes)
Ensure your SLOs covers the most important skills and knowledge your program teaches.
Given the limited number of SLOs you should have, you are encouraged to ensure that they cover the most important skills and knowledge your program teaches its students. Ideally, the list would comprise your program’s necessary and sufficient learning outcomes.
Avoid using verbs that imply a comparison of skills or knowledge between two points in time.
Avoid using verbs or adjectives that imply a comparison of skills or knowledge between two points in time (e.g., develop, improve, enhance, deepened, strengthened, transformed). Such SLOs require a pre- and post-measure for assessment, thereby doubling your work. EWU’s assessment system seeks to examine the degree to which graduates meet the standards faculty establish; it does not necessitate that faculty discern how much students improve from where they started.
Specify skills or knowledge that will be new to students.
Each SLO should specify a skill, body of knowledge, or degree of mastery that one would anticipate that almost all students would not have acquired prior to enrolling in the course or starting the program. That is, courses and programs should be designed to teach students new things or teach them how to do things at a more sophisticated level.
The verb you use in the SLO should point to the evidence you need to collect to assess the SLO.
The verb you use in the SLO should point to the evidence you need to collect to assess the SLO. For example, for the PLO “Students who successfully earn a degree in journalism will be able to write effectively,” you would collect students’ writing samples. Similarly, to evaluate the CLO “Students who pass Great Books of the Western World should be able to list at least five attributes of texts influenced by Western traditions,” you would ask students to generate a list of text attributes (likely in response to a test question). You are, therefore, encouraged to select your verbs carefully.
Make sure your SLOs are specific to your field.
Make sure your SLOs are specific to your field. For example, rather than “Students will be able to formulate testable hypotheses,” a better SLO would be something like “Students will be able to formulate testable hypotheses that are grounded in sociological theory.”
Avoid framing student learning outcomes in self-referential terms.
Avoid framing student learning outcomes in self-referential terms. SLOs should spell out what is to be learned so that an outside reader familiar with the discipline would grasp the curriculum. An example of a self-referential CLO is “Those earning a passing grade in CHEM 100L will be able to identify the principles underlying the experiments performed in the course.” This CLO is self-referential because one would need to know which experiments are to be conducted in the class in order to glean which principles will be studied. By comparison, a CLO that would communicate the content of what is to be learned is “Those earning a passing grade in CHEM 100L will be able to identify the principles underlying basic experiments on combustions, particles, and enzymes.”
Avoid fuzzy terms in SLOs by substituting the definition of the term you intend.
Whenever possible, avoid fuzzy terms in SLOs by substituting the definition of the term you intend.
For example, in lieu of “Upon graduation, economics majors should be able to demonstrate critical thinking skills,” a PLO might be “Upon graduation, economics majors should be able to identify the assumptions implicit in economic theories” or “Upon graduation, economics majors should be able to identify instances of faulty logic employed in economic research articles.”
Likewise, the PLO, “Business majors will be able to demonstrate oral communication competence ,” would be improved if it were to read, “Business majors will be able to deliver a professional presentation ,” or “Business majors will be able to present their ideas persuasively when speaking extemporaneously in work group meetings.”
All required courses should have at least one compulsory CLO that leads to at least one PLO.
All required courses should have at least one compulsory CLO that leads to at least one PLO. A compulsory CLO is one that all faculty are required to “teach to” and assess when they are the instructor for that class. The program faculty as a group should develop the compulsory CLOs since they are a building block of the curriculum and, as such, program faculty jointly “own” them.
You should not repeat CLOs across required courses.
You should not repeat CLOs across required courses. Faculty should not expect students to take two different courses that teach the same thing. Instead, you should design your program’s curriculum to scaffold learning. CLOs should specify levels of learning to build on each other. For example, CHEM 101 Lab may have the following CLO: “At the end of this course, students will be able to demonstrate safe lab procedures for simple chemistry experiments;” and CHEM 301 Lab may have the following: “At the end of this course, students will be able to demonstrate safe lab procedures for complex chemistry experiments.”
When students are required to choose one course from a list, all courses in the list should share one or more compulsory CLOs that lead to a PLO.
When students are required to choose one course from a list, all courses in the list should share one or more compulsory CLOs that lead to a PLO.
Programs leading to the same degree should have identical PLOs.
Programs leading to the same degree should have identical PLOs regardless of mode of delivery (i.e., on-ground, online, hybrid).
Each program your department houses should have a distinct set of PLOs.
Each program your department houses should have a distinct set of PLOs. Although different programs, particularly those with overlapping curricula, may share PLOs, at least one PLO needs to distinguish each program. This is because if two programs’ PLOs are identical, they have no reason to exist as separate programs. That said, in certain cases it can make sense for a program to have all of the same PLOs as another program provided that the second program have at least one additional PLO. In other words, the PLOs for one program may be a subset of those of another; one may think of these as “nested programs.”. An example would be if, say, the BS in Mathematics had one more PLO than the BA in Mathematics, such as, if those earning the BS needed to “demonstrate advanced competency in abstract algebra,” while those seeking the BA did not.
Number the PLOs so that faculty may refer to them in the catalog and assessment reports and on syllabi and graded assignments.
Number the PLOs so that faculty may refer to them in the catalog and assessment reports and on syllabi and graded assignments. For example, upon the successful completion of the Fine Arts major, students will be able to:
- Create a body of work that demonstrates conceptual intent (ART-PLO-1)
- Create a body of work that demonstrates technical skill (ART-PLO-2)
- Critically evaluate artwork using appropriate terminology (ART-PLO-3)
- Produce a portfolio that includes an artist’s statement, artist resume, and professional slides/documentation of their work (ART-PLO-4)
So that faculty can discern patterns in student learning over time, programs ideally will keep the same PLOs during its triennial assessment cycle or, better yet, during its 5-year program review cycle.
So that faculty can discern patterns in student learning over time, programs ideally will keep the same PLOs during its triennial assessment cycle or, better yet, during its 5-year program review cycle. Given that they will shape student learning in your program for a substantial period of time, you are advised to develop them carefully. That said, if faculty find that a particular PLO is not generating useful information, it is better to change the PLO than continue to expend effort collecting data fruitlessly.
Recommended Steps for Writing PLOs
Identify program graduates’ most important skills and knowledge.
Getting clear on precisely what you want the graduating seniors in each of your department’s majors to know and be able to do is the critical first step in designing effective and assessable educational programs. First, ask yourself, “If there were only five things I would want to be sure that the graduates of this program know or are able to do, what would those things be?” Write these down. For inspiration, you might want to look at the program’s existing list of PLOs. After you have your list of core skills and knowledge, your colleagues and you should pool your lists and as a group choose about five to seven PLOs you agree as a group are most important. Don’t fall into the trap of selecting certain ones just because they seem easy to assess. Instead, pick those you about which you really care.
Refine the PLOs to make them assessable.
After faculty decide on the skills and knowledge expected for each program, the next step is to refine them into assessable PLOs that comply with the “do’s” and “don’ts” put forth above. Like all efforts to produce good writing, this process, which entails a combination of wordsmithing and achieving enhanced conceptual clarity, can be painstaking and take time.
Use the SLO checklist. Once you have developed your PLOs, you should verify that they conform with best practices by using the SLO checklist.
Once you have developed your PLOs, you should verify that they conform with best practices by using the SLO checklist below.
- Does each SLO have a hook and ladder?
- Does each rung in the ladder start with a verb that can be measured by the instructor?
- Is each rung in the ladder single-actioned?
- Do all rungs in the ladder avoid using verbs or adjectives that imply a comparison between two points in time?
- Examples: developed, improved, transformed, strengthened
- Does each SLO specify a skill, a body of knowledge, or degree of mastery that one would anticipate that students would not have prior to enrolling in the course or starting the program?
- Does each SLO specify the data that will be collected?
- Is each rung on the ladder specific to the academic discipline?
- Is the number of rungs on the ladder a manageable number to assess?
- 4-6 CLOs for a four-unit course
- 5-7 PLOs for a program
- Does each rung in the ladder specify a skill or body of knowledge that is imperative that students acquire in the course or program?
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