Student learning outcomes are the knowledge, skills, and abilities that students can demonstrate as evidence of what they have learned.  At its core, assessment is simply the systematic investigation of whether students are achieving the intended outcomes and curating the curriculum based on the results.  For this reason, effective learning outcomes are the foundation the assessment process and often a point in the process that must be revisited regularly.

Drafting learning outcomes is both an art and a science.  It is an art in that there are infinite ways to describe student learning across the many disciplines and administrative units of the University.  It is a science in that there are conventions for writing learning outcomes that enable educators and students to understand and use them most effectively.   The resources below can help instructors create outcomes that will support both successful student learning and a meaningful assessment process.

The Language of Assessment

Often, one of the most confusing parts of doing assessment is understanding the difference between goals, objectives, and outcomes.  Although there is no official dictionary of assessment, it is helpful for all stakeholders in the assessment process to share a common understanding jargon used in talking about assessment.  To that end, the following explanations and examples should help clarify how these terms are used at Drew University.

  • Goals – big picture description of what educators hope to achieve with their students
    • Should describe the qualities, attitudes, and understandings of students after a learning experience
    • Can be ephemeral or unobservable
    • Can extend beyond the student’s time at the University
  • Objectives – what educators will do to help students achieve the goals
    • Can be educator-centered in that they describe what experiences or opportunities the educator will provide to students
    • More than one objective can support any single goal
  • Outcomes – the knowledge, skills, or abilities that students should be able to demonstrate at the end of a learning experience
    • Must be student-centered in that they describe what the student can display as a result of the objectives
    • Must be observable to the educator or others
    • Should be time-bound to the end of the learning experience or soon thereafter
    • Should focus on a single demonstrable action
Aligning Student Learning Outcomes

Effective learning outcomes situate any given learning opportunity (an assignment, a class, a course) in the larger context of the overall curriculum.  The graphic below illustrates how the larger mission, or purpose, of the curriculum is expressed through learning goals, objectives, and outcomes, each being more specific and granular than the last.

Of course, the curricular mission cannot be sufficiently supported by a single outcome, or demonstration of student learning.  In reality, the assessment of numerous and diverse outcomes should can provide confidence in the fulfillment of the curriculum.

One way to ensure that each goal and the overall mission of the curriculum is sufficiently aligned with and supported by the outcomes is to map out their relationships.  The matrix below can help visualize the alignment from the mission through the outcomes and measures, or the metrics and instruments used to evaluate the outcomes.  Click on the image to obtain a Word version of the matrix to use for your own efforts.

Anatomy of a Learning Outcome

There is a general format to writing a learning outcome statement in order to ensure that the outcome accurately express what is intended for students to learn.  The format should conform to the following formula: [action] [context/setting] [details and qualities].  Action refers to the single, specific demonstrable skill that produces evidence of student learning.  Context and/or setting indicate the circumstances in which students should be able to perform the desired action.  Details and qualities provide the particulars of how, when, and in what manner students should be able to perform the desired action.