Developing Course SLOs

Course Student Learning Outcome Defined

Course SLOs are the measurable skills or accomplishments, which embody the overarching goals of a course. They represent the most important learning that takes place in a course. 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 abilities or knowledge, and you want them to retain those abilities or that knowledge. 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 over a hundred), student learning outcomes organize these skills into broader outcomes.

Because student learning outcomes need to be assessed in a more organized, concrete way than the old learning objectives, and because student learning outcomes are broader than learning objectives, it makes sense for a course to have a limited number of student learning outcomes. Ideally, each most courses should have between five and seven SLOs. Currently, the number of SLOs listed on the majority of course outlines is much greater. Through continued assessment, faculty will begin to identify which SLOs are actually learning objectives and  can be combined with others to create broader overarching SLOs for the course.

There are three basic forms of learning outcomes.

  • Topical Outcomes. Learning outcomes that relate to major topics of a course. These are the most common form of learning outcomes.
  • Global Learning Outcomes. Learning outcomes that link together major topics of a course.
  • Specific Learning Outcomes. Learning outcomes that highlight a particularly important component of a course.

The Difference Between Outcomes and Objectives

“Student learning outcomes” do not represent a completely new direction in teaching and learning but rather a continuation of a trend that began with “learning objectives.”

That change was from a primary focus on the subject matter or body of knowledge to a concentration on the skills or application derived from the teaching of the subject matter. Verbs emphasizing what students would be able to do or know after the learning process was complete replaced the rather vague verbs “comprehend” and “learn.” Learning objectives had to be measurable tasks or skills. The purpose was to redirect the energies of the teaching and learning process towards its effects on the students. This makes education more responsive to the needs of students and to the sectors of society that depend upon the successful results of higher education.

This emphasis on results, which is sometimes reflected in the term “accountability,” has not been replaced by a new fad. Instead, the trend has continued in the same direction. Student learning outcomes are like learning objectives in their focus on the measurable results of student learning. They differ in scope, however. The main difference between student learning outcomes and learning objectives is that learning objectives are discrete, individual tasks or skills that must be accomplished before the larger, broader goals of the course can be achieved. The overarching goals of the course, however, are the student learning outcomes.

The other change between learning objectives and student learning outcomes is that the new accreditation standards now require colleges to collect data on the success of students meeting those overarching goals. Colleges are then charged with analyzing the data and making changes that will result in more effective student learning.

Course-Level SLOs in Course Outlines

Faculty consult the Curriculum Handbook handbook when creating a new course. Course Student Learning Outcomes are are listed in course outlines and approved by the Curriculum Committee. SLOs are also available publicly through department websites and presented by all faculty on the syllabi for all courses.

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 continual.

The Course Outline of Record is the official course document; it became official through a rigorous review process. The SLOs listed in the course record should be referred to at the beginning of the assessment process. 

  • How many SLOs are listed in the Course Record?
  • Are the SLOs overarching (“big picture” learning for the course)
  • Are they smaller objectives (things learned in just one chapter, for instance)?

A large number may indicate that they are being phrased as objectives rather than outcomes.  Think about how your assessment plan can inform a future revision of your course outline of record.

EXAMPLES of Outcomes and Objectives:

Objective: Recognize how human-built infrastructure impacts the coastal environment

Outcome: Articulte how human activities impact the environment.

Objective:   Able to format a MS Word document according to MLA guidelines including   all document specifications (margins, headers, footers, use of styles, tab stops).

Outcome: Demonstrate proficiency in the use of word processing, spreadsheet, database, and presentation applications.

Writing Course SLOs

List the desired outcomes in behavioral or performance terms, (i.e., what a successful learner is able to do upon completion of the course). While instructors may vary in their approach to course material, the department as a whole should specify abilities or competencies 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.

  • The format typically begins with the phrase "Upon completion of this course the student will be able to:" with a list of those expectations following. Begin each outcome with an action verb. Describe what students will be able to do when demonstrating achievement of that outcome upon completion of the course.
  • The challenge herein lies in distilling the hundreds of specific learning outcomes down to a reasonable number.
  • The key is grouping individual items into sets that share commonalties. 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."

Note that the learning outcomes, taken with the introductory phrase, 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 maps to at least one outcome. Sub-major or detail level topics of the course do not all 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 a process instead of an outcome (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., “Know the differences between various file formats”). Again, write about what students will be able to do (e.g., “Demonstrate appropriate choices in file formats for different applications”)


Incorporating Critical Thinking

Degree-applicable courses require demonstrable critical thinking. The incorporation of critical thinking must be evident throughout the course outline, but particularly in the Student Learning Outcomes, and Assignments and Evaluation sections of Instructional Methodology.

It must be clear that students are expected to think critically, are instructed in how to do so, and are held accountable for their performance. The manner in which the Student Learning Outcomes section reflects critical thinking is in the higher cognitive expectations. A useful way to evaluate the cognitive level of a learning outcome is to use Bloom’s Taxonomy and other verb tables. Use verbs showing analysis, synthesis, or evaluation. Rather than “understand,” “identify,” or “describe," use “explain...” or “compare and contrast...”

Often, early versions of Student Learning Outcomes are written in a way that de-emphasizes critical thinking. Consider the following Student Learning Outcome: "Use proper punctuation, grammar, and spelling in the creation of essays."

To emphasize critical thinking, rewrite this Student Learning Outcome as: "Create essays that use proper punctuation, grammar, and spelling."

Note that not ALL outcomes need to reflect critical thinking. However, it should be clear that higher thinking skills are an essential component of the course. The course outline must demonstrate that students are taught how to acquire these skills and must master them to pass the class.