The first step in creating a foundation for making more comprehensive sense of student work and performance within the major is developing desired student learning outcomes. Breaking down general programmatic goals for student learning into specific, measurable expectations that link directly to key aspects of the core curriculum establishes a foundation for providing the direct evidence that is critical today in meeting federal expectations for demonstrating educational effectiveness.
What are student learning outcomes?
Student learning outcomes describe what students should know, be able to do, and value by the end of their educational program. Within undergraduate education, four general dimensions of learning outcomes 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 undergraduate student 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 outcomes. Rather, this is simply a consideration to keep in mind when developing your program’s assessment plan. Certainly, indirect evidence pertaining to all types of learning outcomes can be used to augment analysis of direct evidence and to enrich program faculty’s understanding of student learning within the major and related implications for educational practice.
How are learning outcomes different than goals?
Program 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 academic programs, goals are the most prevalent source of learning outcomes. Students’ achievement of these goals is impossible to assess, however, unless they are broken down into smaller, more specifically measurable parts. Learning outcomes represent those parts. They describe, in concrete terms, what program goals mean and provide a mechanism that enables faculty to determine whether students have mastered key program goals. As such, learning outcomes serve as an essential tool for gathering evidence of student learning.
Why are learning outcomes important?
Apart from their rather utilitarian value within assessment contexts, learning outcomes 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 outcomes 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 (e.g., on the department/program website, in program literature, in the UCLA general catalog), student learning outcomes communicate to prospective students, their parents, and the public what is valuable about a particular academic program.
- Assessing student learning outcomes can provide information to students on their strengths and weaknesses in relationship to specific learning dimensions.
- Assessing student learning outcomes can provide faculty with information that can be used to improve educational programs and demonstrate their effectiveness.
Beyond pedagogical value, UCLA’s accreditation agency, WASC, expects that all educational programs (i.e., majors and the general education program) will establish their own student learning outcomes, develop plans for assessing their learning outcomes, and use the findings to enhance student learning.
In developing learning outcomes for programs, where do we start?
The particular process you engage in drafting your program’s learning outcomes will depend, in large part, on whether your primary source of evidence for student learning is capstone-based (Path 1), or whether you are relying instead on portfolio or exam-based approaches (Path 2).
(Learn more about UCLA’s Capstone Initiative )