The first step in creating a foundation for making more comprehensive sense of student work and performance within a course is developing desired student learning objectives/competencies.

What are course-level learning objectives/competencies?

Student learning objectives/competencies describe what students should know, be able to do, and value by the end of the course.   Four general dimensions of learning objectives/competencies are commonly identified:

  • Knowledge outcomes pertain to grasp of fundamental cognitive content, core concepts or questions, basic principles of inquiry, a broad history, and/or varied disciplinary techniques.
  • Skills outcomes focus on capacity for applying basic knowledge, analyzing and synthesizing information assessing the value of information, communicating effectively, and collaborating.
  • Attitudes and values outcomes encompass affective states, personal/professional/social values, and ethical principles.
  • Behavioral outcomes reflect a manifestation of knowledge, skills, and attitudes as evidenced by performance, contributions, etc.

While all of these dimensions represent important aspects of learning, some types of outcomes (e.g., knowledge, skills, and behavioral) tend to more readily lend themselves to evaluation based on “direct” evidence than do others (e.g., attitudes and values outcomes). This does not mean that attitudes and values outcomes should be viewed as inherently less important than other types of learning objectives/competencies. Rather, this is simply a consideration to keep in mind when assessing student learning in a course. Certainly, indirect evidence pertaining to all types of learning objectives/competencies can be used to augment analysis of direct evidence and to enrich faculty’s understanding of student learning and related implications for educational practice.

How are learning objectives/competencies different than goals?

Course goals reflect broad, non-specific categories of learning (e.g., critical thinking, communication, science literacy, multicultural literacy) that provide context for curricula, teaching, and student learning. Within courses, goals are the most prevalent source of learning objectives/competencies. Students’ achievement of these goals is impossible to assess, however, unless they are broken down into smaller, more specifically measurable parts. Learning objectives/competencies represent those parts. They describe, in concrete terms, what course goals mean and provide a mechanism that enables faculty to determine whether students have mastered key goals in the course. As such, learning objectives/competencies serve as an essential tool for gathering evidence of student learning.

Why are learning objectives/competencies important?

Apart from their rather utilitarian value within assessment contexts, learning objectives/competencies are increasingly embraced within the higher education community for a variety of reasons:

  • When students know what is expected of them, they tend to focus their studying time and energy better, thus improving learning.
  • Student learning objectives/competencies support a “learner-centered” approach to instructional activity; emphasis is on the types of experiences students must have to be able to achieve expected outcomes rather than “coverage of topics” within the curriculum.
  • Once published (i.e., stated on the course syllabus), student learning objectives/competencies communicate to prospective students, their parents, and the public what is valuable about specific courses.
  • Assessing student learning objectives/competencies can provide information to students on their strengths and weaknesses in relationship to specific learning dimensions.
  • Assessing student learning objectives/competencies can provide faculty with information that can be used to improve course curriculum and demonstrate course effectiveness.

Beyond pedagogical value, UCLA’s accreditation agency, WSCUC, expects that all educational programs (i.e., majors and the general education program) will establish their own student learning objectives/competencies, develop plans for assessing their learning objectives/competencies, and use the findings to enhance student learning. WSCUC specifically emphasizes that student learning objectives/competencies must be articulated at the course level.

In developing learning objectives/competencies for courses, where do we start?

Rather than focusing on the activities or lessons of the course, the learning objectives/competencies should state the learning that results from the course. The particular process you engage in drafting your course’s learning objectives/competencies may depend, in part, on what the established learning objectives/competencies are for the major(s) or program(s) that require the course’s completion. It may be useful to determine how the course learning objectives/competencies link to the program outcomes and whether the course, for example, serves as an introduction to the skills or knowledge, develops them further, or provides an opportunity for students to demonstrate their mastery.

Where are course learning objectives/competencies published?

As established in this correspondence  between Vice Provost and Dean of Undergraduate Education Patricia A. Turner and the Academic Senate, beginning in Spring 2018, course-level learning objectives/competencies must be listed in the syllabus for all new AND revised courses. The syllabi will be collected through the Course Inventory Management System (CIMS).

Online Resources

 Assessing Student Learning Outcomes