Developing Course SLOs

Course Student Learning Outcome Defined

Course SLOs are the measurable skills or accomplishments that embody the overarching goals of a course. They represent the most important learning that takes place during instruction. It may be helpful to think of them this way: when your students leave your course at the end of the semester, you want them to be in firm possession of certain skills and abilities. Those are the student learning outcomes.

While many courses in the past have had upwards of 15 or more learning objectives (some science courses have had over a hundred), student learning outcomes organize these skills much more broadly, so it makes sense for a course to have a limited number of student learning outcomes. Ideally, each most courses should have between three and five SLOs.

The Difference Between Outcomes and Objectives

Learning Objectives are brief statements that describe what students will be expected to learn by the end of a school year, course, unit, lesson, program, etc.  They often recapitulate the course content For example, a learning objective might be written:

  1. Students will understand the theory of evolution.

  2. Students will learn about JAVA programming and HTML.

  3. Students will read three different plays written by William Shakespeare.

By contrast, Learning Outcomes are statements that describe significant and essential learning that learners have achieved, and can reliably demonstrate at the end of a course or program.  Learning Outcomes identify what the learner will know and be able to do by the end of a course or program.  Learning Outcomes are written differently:

  1. Students will apply the theory of evolution to make predictions about the effects of environmental change on the species that live there.

  2. Students will demonstrate proficiency with JAVA and HTML by creating computer programs and webpages.

  3. Students will compare political themes from the plays of William Shakespeare with modern political discourse in the United States. 

Course-Level SLOs in Course Outlines and Syllabi

Faculty should consult the Curriculum Handbook handbook when creating a new course.  Course Student Learning Outcomes are always listed in the Course Outline of Record and must be approved by the Curriculum Committee.  Course Outlines and their SLOs are updated on a regular cycle, so the opportunity for refinement of SLOs and updating them to match current industry and educational needs is continuous.

The Course Outline of Record becomes the official course document through a rigorous review process. SLO’s are available through Departmental webpages and via the course syllabus that is provided to students at the beginning of the semester.  Best practices are to go over course SLO’s with students during the course introduction, so that students are fully informed what expectations faculty have for them.

Writing Course SLOs

When writing student learning outcomes, remember that they should describe what a student will be able to DO at the end of a course or program.  While instructors may vary in their approach to course material, the academic department as a whole should work collaboratively to determine which competencies are expected of all students who complete the course. Include the theories, principles, and concepts of the subject matter. Use skills and applications to reinforce and develop concepts.

  • SLO’s use action verbs (often from Bloom’s Taxonomy) with an emphasis on higher order thinking skills (such as analysis, synthesis or evaluation).  Begin each outcome with a verb (not an adverb and not another introductory phrase or clause).  The verbs in Bloom’s Taxonomy are very helpful for describing what students will be able to do when demonstrating achievement of that outcome upon completion of the course.  Bloom’s taxonomy can be a useful starting place.

  • Avoid starting SLOs with words such as “understand,” “learn,” “know,” etc.   Focus instead on what students will be able to do, produce or demonstrate.  

  • It can be challenging to distill hundreds of specific learning outcomes down to a reasonable number.  As you write outcomes, ask yourself what the overarching learning outcomes of the course should be.

  • When consolidating SLOs it can be useful to group items into sets that share commonalities. For example, a sociology course might have many detailed items for students to learn in the area of cross-cultural comparison, but the collective statement in the outcomes might be "Compare and contrast traditions and behaviors in a variety of cultures."

  • A well-written SLO must be assessable, and often will suggest or imply an assessment.

  • Learning outcomes are short declarative sentences (e.g., “Upon completion of the course a student will be able to identify and correct errors in punctuation, grammar, and spelling”).

  • When creating learning outcomes, ensure each major topic in the Contents Section can be associated with at least one outcome. Sub-major or detail level topics of the course do not need to map to one of the outcomes, unless they are unusually important components of the course.

Be sure to avoid the following common pitfalls:

·    Writing outcomes that describe what is happening during class time (e.g., “Develop an understanding of the role of culture in political institutions”). Instead, write about what students will be able to do once this process is complete (e.g., “Describe the role of culture in political institutions”).

·    Writing an outcome that is not assessable (e.g., “Appreciate the differences among various file formats”). Again, write about what students will be able to do (e.g., “Identify and explain the differences among various file formats for different applications”)