Student Learning Outcomes and Assessment Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What are student learning outcomes?
Student learning outcomes (SLOs) specify the skills, knowledge, and abilities gained at the completion of a course of study—whether that is an individual course or a degree, emphasis or certificate program. Student learning outcomes are the measures by which we determine our success in delivering our curriculum and identify areas for improvement.
Student learning outcomes should reflect actions by the student that are specific, demonstrable, and measurable. The goal of student learning outcomes is to produce evidence that students gain skills, knowledge, and abilities from their educational activities and experiences. A well-crafted student learning outcome is the key to authentic and sustainable assessment that provides actionable data, whether for a course or a program of study.
At TMCC, we assess student learning outcomes at the course and program (degree, emphasis, and certificate) levels. Designing student learning outcomes is a straightforward process that is not inherently difficult
Why assess student learning outcomes?
When assessments of SLOs are executed in a systematic way, it benefits students, faculty, and the college. Additionally, student learning outcomes function as measures of accountability. They provide evidence to internal and external audiences that we provide students with quality educational experiences.
We assess SLOs because they help us to better facilitate student learning, because they provide us with critical feedback, because they help students demonstrate what they are learning, and because they provide direction to students who want to know how they can learn particular skills, knowledge, and abilities.
SLO assessment benefits students by communicating clear expectations about what we value in a course or program. Assessment also provides them with a set of goals and expectations for a course or program, and students who know what faculty expect in terms of their learning are better able to succeed. Student learning outcomes enable students to know what they will "get" from a course or program of study and thus plan more effectively. Assessment of common core components across all sections of a course ensures students' general level of achievement, and SLO measures provide assurance to students that they will be evaluated in a consistent and transparent manner.
SLO assessment benefits faculty in multiple ways. Faculty who have a clear idea of what they want their students to learn are able to align their instructional activities to these outcomes, and assessment can determine what is and is not working in courses and programs, which will lead to improvement. Assessment can provide a "quality check" for faculty teaching high demand courses with multiple sections and instructors, and it can generate valuable departmental discussions as well as interdisciplinary and inter-campus discussions. SLO assessment also communicates faculty expertise to internal and external audiences, and it provides evidence to justify resource requests to maintain or improve courses and programs. Ultimately, assessment of SLOs helps faculty understand and improve instruction, which is at the core of the institution's mission.
The institution benefits from SLO assessment, too. SLO assessment provides the means to examine the alignment between student learning at the course or program level, broad institutional expectations, and the college's mission. SLO assessment at course and program levels is an integral part of academic decision making, including planning and budgeting. Assessment results demonstrate a strong commitment to the examination and improvement of academic programs, and they provide evidence to the community—taxpayers, businesses, elected officials—that the college has a direct impact on students and the community and that we provide students with quality educational experiences.
What is the relationship between the course/program description, course/program objectives, and course/program student learning outcomes?
To write a solid SLO, faculty must understand the relationship between the course or program description, the objectives of the courses or the program, and the student learning outcomes and measures.
The course or program (degree, emphasis, or certificate) description appears in the catalog and is a description of content. The description establishes the parameters of the program or course and defines the broad scope of knowledge, skills, and/or values that a student will experience. As a public document, the course or program description is often thought of as the "contract" between the student and the institution.
Program or course objectives indicate the intended results of a program or course. Objectives provide an overview of the knowledge, skills, or abilities at the completion of a course or program. They are more specific than the description, but they do not provide the level of specificity that a student learning outcome provides. For example, an objective for an accounting program would be "to analyze financial reports and trends" or "complete the accounting cycle for a small business, both manually and using a current accounting software package.
Student learning outcomes—whether for a program or a course—indicate the achieved results of a program or course. They are the specific, demonstrable, measurable results of a student's experiences in a program or course or what the student can do as a result of his or her learning. They are often expressed as knowledge, skills, attitudes, or values, and they must be observable, demonstrable, and measurable. For example, a student learning outcome for an accounting program could indicate that "students will analyze financial trends that affect financial forecasts"; a student learning outcome for an accounting course could indicate that "students will produce accurate payroll documents."
In an ideal scenario, program or course objectives and SLOs are developed first and drive course and program creation and curriculum development. Identifying objectives, SLOs, and measures focuses programs and courses for effective development. However, in reality, most of us establish objectives, SLOs, and measures on already existing courses. Thus we often tailor the objectives, SLOs, and measures to what is already in place rather than using them as design tools. In these cases, it is especially important to receive feedback to avoid the "tunnel vision" that often accompanies familiarity with our own courses.
What's the difference between course objectives and student learning outcomes?
Objectives describe intended results, and student learning outcomes describe achieved results. Objectives focus on the course or program, and the student learning outcomes focus on the students' achievements.
How do student learning outcome objectives reflect intended results?
Objectives reflect the broadly stated content knowledge, skills, and/or abilities you want students to achieve at the end of the course or program. Course objectives are more specific than the course description, but they are broadly stated so they can serve the course for many years (unless your discipline or accrediting agency requires revision). They identify the key elements that must be taught every time the course is taught. Course or program objectives capture the long-range intended goals of the course or program.
Course objectives focus on the course. What are its objectives? Will the course introduce students to basic concepts? Will it reinforce existing skills? Will it utilize a common set of principles in the analysis of specific applications? Will it synthesize principles and applications?
Is there a standard way to write student learning outcome objectives?
When you write or revise objectives, structure them in the following manner:
The objectives of this course are:
- To reinforce knowledge of physiology used in veterinary practices.
- To introduce the basic principles of pharmacology used in veterinary practices.
- To synthesize the principles of physiology and pharmacology in the application of pharmaceuticals commonly used in veterinary practices.
Note that objectives are formed by using "to + verb"—the infinitive form of the verb. Phrase objectives in terms of "the objectives of the course are to ________________" and use a verb that demonstrates an appropriate cognitive domain (Bloom's taxonomy, for example, or a domain of knowledge indicator).
Note that each of these objectives reflects the level of learning—to reinforce, to introduce, and to synthesize. Additionally, the objectives reflect a range of thinking skills. They also specify the area of focus—all of these are characteristics of solid objectives.
How do student learning outcomes reflect achieved results?
Student learning outcomes (SLOs) reflect the specific and measurable knowledge, skills, and abilities students demonstrate as a result of their experiences. Outcomes are more specific and measurable than objectives, and they provide evidence that learning took place. They identify the discrete experiences that reflect student achievement. Program (degree, emphasis, and certificate) outcomes are published in the catalog, and student learning outcomes must be published on course syllabi; they are the elements used to assess the course's success, not the individual student's success.
Student learning outcomes for courses should demonstrate the following characteristics:
- SLOs should be directly and logically related to the course objectives and the course description.
- SLOs should be written in terms of what the student will know, do, or perform at the end of the course.
- SLOs should use verbs that indicate the level of thinking (Bloom's taxonomy or depth of knowledge indicators).
- SLOs should indicate a range of thinking, from lower level identification to higher level application of knowledge, skills, and abilities.
Student learning outcomes focus on the student. What specific activities will the student perform to demonstrate competency? Often it's easier to identify lower level skills because they are easier to assess, but the student learning outcomes should focus on the knowledge, skills, and abilities that define competency at the end of the course. What are the two, three, or four most meaningful outcomes for the course? When you identify and establish student learning outcomes for a course, you are establishing the core outcomes for the course that all students will be expected to meet, no matter the section and faculty member—in effect, the baseline that determines the knowledge, skills, and abilities that students will carry forward into other classes.
Is there a standard way to write student learning outcomes?
When you write your student learning outcomes, structure them in the following manner:
Student Learning Outcome 1: Students will identify the drugs used in veterinary medicine and their classifications.
Student Learning Outcome 2: Students will accurately calculate drug doses based on physiology of animals in veterinary practice.
Student Learning Outcome 3: Students will synthesize general pharmacological concepts to the practice of veterinary medicine.
Note that student learning outcomes are formed using "will + verb"—the future tense of the verb. Think of phrasing student learning outcomes in terms of "students will __________________" and use a verb that demonstrates an appropriate cognitive domain (Bloom's taxonomy, for example, or a domain of knowledge indicator).
Note that each of these student learning outcomes has an action verb that can be measured and that indicates the level of thinking (Bloom's taxonomy or depth of knowledge indicators). Action verbs result in behavior that can be observed and measured, versus verbs that result in behavior that is not clearly defined, observed, or measured. A student can identify, explain, or analyze, and we can measure the level of each. It's much more difficult to define, observe, and measure whether a student understands, appreciates, or knows something.
Are there a required number of objectives or student learning outcomes?
NO! You determine the number of objectives and outcomes. Remember that course objectives are the broadly stated intended results of a course; SLOs are the specific achieved results. You want to focus on the most important objectives and outcomes. What elements are most important and reflect the focus of the course? Remember, you must assess the SLOs you identify; you want your assessment efforts to be meaningful and sustainable, not overwhelming and frustrating.
Is there a standard for student learning outcome measures?
You should have one well-defined measure for each student learning outcome. Once you have identified student learning outcomes, you must identify the ways in which you will measure them. What specific activities will students complete that will enable you to determine a level of proficiency in relation to the student learning outcomes? How will the measurement of these activities provide you with solid evidence about whether or not students have achieved the outcome?
Measures must align with outcomes. If, for example, an outcome asks that students explain the ways in which several systems interact, a multiple-choice test is not a good instrument to measure this outcome. Similarly, if an outcome asks that students demonstrate their skills in research methodology, an oral presentation would not be the best measure.
Since the measures on the Master Course Outline represent the agreed-upon measures for the outcomes for a particular course, all faculty teaching that course must agree to use those measures. Thus the measures must not only align with SLOs but must also reflect faculty's willingness to use common measures or assignments. They must also be relatively easy to evaluate. Often outcomes are related, and multiple outcomes may be measured with one activity. For example, an English 101 course may have student learning outcomes regarding thesis formation, organization, and use of sources. A common final paper assignment in the course may be used to assess three different outcomes.
Do I have to use a rubric when measuring student learning outcomes?
In addition to identifying the measure itself, we identify the method by which we evaluate the measure. Once we have a test, exam, paper, speech, demonstrated process, or product, how do we determine the level of proficiency? What are the criteria by which we determine competency? We may use answer keys, holistic or dimensional rubrics, task sheets, agency requirements, etc. Whatever method you use, it is imperative that faculty in the discipline discuss the method and determine the levels of performance. Just as objectives and outcomes identify the essential elements that are taught in all sections of a course, measures ensure that student work is evaluated consistently across sections.
Does grading students count as an assessment for student learning outcomes?
Grading is a type of assessment—it is an evaluation of an individual student's performance in relation to a given activity. The sum of the individual grades reflecting student performance over a semester results in a course grade. The course grade does not identify whether or not that student, or the class as a whole, achieved competency in the discrete outcomes identified in the SLOs. For example, an individual student may earn a B in English 102, but that grade does not specifically reflect that student's performance in using research methodologies. A course assessment that evaluates all students' performance in using research methodologies will reflect how students (in the aggregate) performed the skill; the results can be used to confirm sound pedagogy or provide information for improvement. Often course grades are a combination of a number of activities and assignments; assessment provides the focus and feedback for what we value most in a course.
How do I access objectives and outcomes for existing courses and programs?
Locate the existing documentation for the course or program. The forms are available at TMCC Academics, and you will be able to view the approved course or program description, course objectives, and student learning outcomes and measures. If the Master Course Outline for a course is not in the TMCC Academics database, contact your department chair and dean.
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