Tips on Writing Program Learning Outcomes

  • Learning outcomes should itemize the most important goals that the program has defined for its students. Programs often have a large number of goals; learning outcomes reflect the most important of these goals.

  • A well-written goal relates specifically to a program and to how the program’s faculty envisions student learning.

    • For example: “Students will write effectively” could apply to almost any academic program. In contrast, Kansas State University’s English department’s goals that students should be able to “research and write focused, convincing analytical essays in clear, grammatical prose” and “tailor writing for various audiences and purposes” indicates what that department sees as essential writing skills. Other programs, even other English departments, may focus on different aspects of writing. The point is to articulate your department’s goals.
  • Frame all learning goals around the desired outcome or end result of the learning, not around the process or means.

  • Describe observable student behaviors; avoid fuzzy terms when possible. Many will find Bloom’s Taxonomy (PDF) useful for choosing specific verbs.

    • For example, it is difficult to observe whether a student “understands” or “appreciates” a concept but easy to judge whether he or she can “articulate” or “explain” one. Concrete verbs such as "define," "argue," and "create" are more helpful than vague verbs such as "know" or "understand" or passive verb phrases such as ”is exposed to.” Learning outcomes phrased with concrete verbs will help guide the choice of assessment methods. It is much easier to envision assessing whether a student can “define” something than whether he or she “appreciates” something.
  • Be specific about what students who complete the program should be able to do.

    • For example, “understand” is not only vague but may not appropriately represent what is expected of students. Understanding is a low-level cognitive outcome, and a program may want its students to be able to do more than “understand” a concept, such as “critique” it or “apply” it.
  • Find a balance between specific and broad outcomes.

    • Too vague: “Students will demonstrate information literacy skills.”
    • Too specific: “Students will be able to use the college’s online services to retrieve information.”
    • Better: “Students will be able to locate information and evaluate it critically for its validity and appropriateness.*
      *Example from Linda Suskie, Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide, Second Edition (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009).
  • Goals should be challenging yet attainable. It is not necessary for every student to attain every single goal for a program to demonstrate success. In fact, such an outcome might indicate that the goals have been set too low.

  • The University of Connecticut provides a useful overview of how to write program objectives and outcomes (PDF)

Examples of Effectively Expressed Learning Goals

Linda Suskie, a vice president of the Middle States Commision of Higher Education, provides examples of effectively expressed program learning goals.* In her examples, the goals are broad enough to capture significant, higher-order learning but are defined narrowly enough to be specific to the programs.

English Present original interpretations of literary works in the context of existing research on these works
Environmental Science Critically evaluate the effectiveness of agencies, organizations, and programs addressing environmental problems
Theater Use voice, movement, and understanding of dramatic character and situation to affect an audience
Women’s Studies Use gender as an analytical category to critique cultural and social institutions

*Linda Suskie, Assessing Student Learning: A Common Sense Guide, Second Edition. (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2009), page 132.

One advantage of well-written goals is that they help guide the choice of assessment methods. It is easy to imagine how the goals stated above might be assessed: an English student could write a paper presenting original interpretations of literary works, or a theater student could demonstrate these skills in a performance.

Here are two further examples of programs that have well-expressed learning goals:

Kansas State Department of English (PDF)

University of California, Berkeley History Department (PDF)

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