Student learning and development outcomes (SLOs) are the foundation for everything we do with respect to assessment and program development; every step in the cycle that follows presumes the existence of clear, measureable outcomes that are meaningful to stakeholders. During this step of the process, you will need to consider questions such as:

  • What are the most important things you would like students to gain as a result of your program? How would you like students to change?
  • What does research suggest about student learning in this area? Are your outcomes feasible and appropriate?
  • What is the mission or strategic plan for your department or university? Do your program SLOs align with these goals?
Step 1
What Are Student Learning Outcomes?

The terminology used in student learning outcomes assessment can be confusing. The definitions below help distinguish between terms often used when describing student learning outcomes assessment.

Mission - the central purpose of an office, department, or university.
    Example - The Health Center at Dolly Madison University exists to help students lead healthy and productive lives.

Goal - a broad and general expectation for students' skills or abilities.
    Example - After completing the Health Education program, students will possess basic health knowledge.

Outcome (also known as an objective) - a precise statement of what students will know, think, or be able to do as result of purposeful programming. Programming that should impact the stated outcomes is intentionally created.
    Example - After completing the Health Education program, students will be able to describe the 5 dimensions of wellness.

Assessment Instrument (also known as a scale or measure) - a measurement tool used to evaluate the degree to which students or other participants possess particular abilities, skills, knowledge, or characteristics/attributes.
    Example - The Student Wellness Knowledge Scale

The terms above, while distinct, are intimately connected (as illustrated in the figure below). More specifically,

  1. Departmental goals should ideally reflect the broader mission of the department and university.
  2. SLOs should ideally align with departmental goals.
  3. Assessment instruments then evaluate the learning articulated in specific SLOs.

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Mission and Outcome
Characteristics of Student Learning Outcomes

High-quality SLOs have the following four characteristics:

1

Student Oriented: SLOs should reflect the knowledge, attitudes, and skills students are expected to gain as a result of participating in a program. SLOs should not outline the programming students will receive or summarize what a facilitator will cover; that is the next step of the assessment cycle. The focus of SLOs is on the student and their learning.

Good Example

As a result of completing Transfer Student Orientation, incoming transfer students will be able to list 4 academic resources on campus.

Bad Example

Facilitators will deliver a presentation about academic resources on campus. (Focuses on what the facilitator will do, not what students will learn.)

Students will play "Academic Resource Jeopardy" where they will be exposed to academic resources on campus. (Focuses on what students will experience, not what they will learn as a result of that experience.)

2

Reasonable: SLOs should be reasonable given the length and strength of the planned program. To determine what is reasonable, it may be helpful to consult relevant literature. As a rule of thumb, knowledge-based outcomes are much easier to impact than attitudinal, developmental, or behavioral outcomes.

Good Example

As a result of completing a 30-minute session on academic resources during Transfer Student Orientation, incoming transfer students will be able to list 4 academic resources on campus.

Bad Example

As a result of completing a 30-minute session on academic resources during Transfer Student Orientation, incoming transfer students will be able to list all (31) academic resources on campus. (It will likely take more than a single 30-minute intervention to remember all resources.)

3

Measurable: The knowledge, attitudes, and/or behaviors specified in SLOs must be measurable. In other words, we must be able to directly observe something (e.g., an item response, an essay, a behavior, etc.) that indicates the outcome has been met. Avoid using vague words such as "know" or "understand" that do not suggest observable behaviors. Instead, pick more specific action verbs like those found here (on page 2).

Good Example

As a result of completing Transfer Student Orientation, incoming transfer students will be able to list 4 academic resources on campus.

Bad Example

As a result of completing Transfer Student Orientation, incoming transfer students will know about academic resources on campus. ("Know" is vague; how will we be able to tell that students "know" about academic resources?)

4

Define Success: SLOs should appropriately define success. In other words, how will you know when the outcome has been achieved? The more precise you are when specifying what "success" looks like, the easier it will be to interpret your assessment results once they've been collected. Note: It may take a few repetitions of a program to develop reasonable expectations for performance; in this case it is okay to hold off specifying desired performance targets until you have more information. 

Good Example

As a result of completing Transfer Student Orientation, incoming transfer students will be able to list 4 academic resources on campus.

Bad Example

As a result of completing Transfer Student Orientation, incoming transfer students will be able to list academic resources on campus. (It is unclear what the program developers consider adequate demonstration of academic resource knowledge. Is it enough for students to list only one resource?)

Before You Write

Before sitting down to write SLOs for your program, consider these important do’s and don’ts to make sure your SLOs are not only measureable, but meaningful.

DO CONSULT RELEVANT THEORY

Reading the research in relevant domains can help you to create SLOs that are not only specific, measureable, and reasonable, but also evidence-based. Imagine you want to develop a program to increase students' civic engagement. You might specify that upon completion of your program, students will be able to list three elected state officials. But does knowledge of state officials actually lead to increased civic engagement? Without an understanding of the research on civic engagement, you are likely to write misguided SLOs that have little hope of truly bringing about the impact you desire. Thus, theory should be consulted before specifying SLOs.

DO USE GOALS

Often the impacts we wish to have on students—the things we truly care about—are hard to define and difficult to reduce to measurable outcomes. Thus, specifying the broader goals may prove a useful way to start the outcomes writing process. Goals capture our more general aspirations and guide the development of specific outcomes. The specific outcomes are not meant to fully articulate the breadth of the broader goal; there are often a multitude of specific learning outcomes that can be mapped to a broad goal. Instead, the specific learning outcomes articulate how progress toward the broad goal will be evidenced.

DO ARTICULATE OUTCOMES BEFORE CREATING PROGRAMMING

SLOs serve as the foundation for program development; it is nearly impossible to intentionally build programming to impact particular outcomes without stating those outcomes first. In short, outcomes are stated and then programming is built that should (according to theory) impact those outcomes. Programs built without explicitly-stated SLOs can be immensely creative and fun, but it is extremely difficult to assess the effectiveness of these programs without first figuring out what outcomes they may impact and why. As a result, students may not experience a sufficiently targeted intervention that increases learning or development.

DO INCORPORATE OTHERS INTO THE PROCESS

For SLOs to be meaningful, they should encompass the voices of as many stakeholders as possible—including those who will develop, implement, oversee, and experience the program. Moreover, you may have colleagues on campus who are working toward similar outcomes and can lend important insights into the outcomes and potential programming (there may even be partnership opportunities). When one person develops SLOs with little or no input from others, the result may be outcomes (and by extension, programs and assessment results) with limited value to others or redundancies across the division.

DON'T RUSH THE PROCESS

It is not uncommon for the process of developing meaningful, measurable SLOs to take weeks or months of dedicated effort. Remember, your SLOs are the foundation for everything else you do. Take time to consult theory, incorporate stakeholders, and think critically about what students can reasonably accomplish in an allotted amount of time before writing them.

Writing Measurable Outcomes - The ABCD Method

The ABCD method is a great tool to assist in writing clear SLOs. "ABCD" is an acronym that refers to four important components of any SLO: audience, behavior, condition, and degree.

Audience

Select your audience or population. Who are you trying to impact? Is it first-year residence hall students? Is it transfer students completing orientation?

Behavior

Specify a behavior that students should be able to do after completing your program. Bloom's taxonomy verbs are a great resource to use here. The more precise you are in specifying the behavior, the easier it will be to measure.

Condition

Identify the conditions under which students will achive the stated behavior. In other words, what is the program or intervention? An easy way specify the condition is to use a template similar to the following:

  • As a result of [the program or intervention]...
  • Upon completing [the program or intervention]...
  • As a function of [the program or intervention]...

 Degree

Articulate the degree to which you expect your students to meet the outcome. This part of the ABCD method is often the most difficult. If the outcome is new to you, then you may not know what exactly to expect (apart from what theory suggests). Thus, in order to accurately specify the degree, you need to balance your desired degree with the type of program you can build to impact the outcome. If your desired degree likely can’t be met given the length and strength of the program you can create with current resources, then you need to either request adequate resources or you need to adjust the degree to align with the length and strength of the program you can build. In short, this decision involves pairing the theory regarding the malleability of the outcome with resource decisions regarding programming.

An example of an SLO written using the ABCD method:
As a function of living on campus (Condition), the first-year residence hall students (Audience) will develop a greater sense of belonging (Behavior) as indicated by a 2-point increase on self-report instrument (Degree).

Additional Resources

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